Vaccination is one of the most successful public health interventions in history. The United States practically eradicated measles in 2000 due to a decades-long nationwide vaccination program. Between 2000 and 2016, more than 20 million deaths were prevented thanks to widespread vaccination.
This success has had the unintended effect of leaving an entire generation of parents unaware of the threats of infectious diseases, leading to the proliferation of anti-vaccination propaganda. An aggressive and politically-engaged anti-vaccination movement continues to make strides through social media.
This year, a measles outbreak has spread throughout the U.S., with more than 700 cases reported in 22 states this year. The World Health Organization declared vaccine hesitancy as a top threat to global health. This should alarm us all, and it is time for public officials, health care providers, and scientists to take a strong stand for vaccination and against anti-vaccination propaganda.
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San Antonio is in a unique position to lead the effort to increase vaccination by facilitating cutting edge biomedical research, expanding access to vaccines in underserved areas, and leading the charge for increased transparency around conscientious exemptions in Texas schools.
The Vaccine Development Center of San Antonio is a consortium of four prestigious San Antonio research institutions (Texas Biomedical Research Institute, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Southwest Research Institute) and is actively working to develop new vaccines, fight anti-vaccine propaganda, and promote the use of vaccines in the San Antonio region. By breaking down silos, reducing costs, and eliminating competition among scientists, the VDCOSA is embracing a consortium model that will serve our community well.
There is a 20-year gap in life expectancy between the wealthiest and most impoverished zip codes in Bexar County. The VDCOSA is focused on increasing access to vaccines in underserved areas. The Metro Health Immunization Program engages in robust outreach, runs a walk-in clinic, and runs school-based immunization programs. Our government entities should do everything in their power to continue to encourage this kind of institutional collaboration and support the center in its research and outreach efforts.
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While Texas law currently requires that schoolchildren have certain vaccinations, parents are able to opt out of vaccination requirements through a conscientious exemption process. The number of Texas children who have opted out of the required vaccinations for non-medical reasons has risen dramatically since 2003.
The State of Texas tracks the number of students with vaccine exemptions by school district, but the data does not provide parents with meaningful information to make an informed choice about where to send their kids to school. State Senator Kel Seliger introduced Senate Bill 329, which would allow parents to access detailed information for each school. While we should recognize this bill is merely a first step toward reducing conscientious exemptions, the Bexar County legislative delegation should strongly support SB 329.
We live in an era where people are increasingly suspicious of facts and vulnerable to misinformation. A notorious Texas Republican lawmaker recently went so far as to call vaccination “sorcery.” But vaccinations are a true miracle of science. San Antonio has a long legacy of leadership in the biomedical industry and is in a strong position to fight misinformation, increase access, and support evidence-based vaccination policies.