Author: Rachel M. Cunningham, MPH, Rekha Lakshmanan, Director of Policy and Advocacy at The Immunization Partnership

Originally posted here.

For years, my husband and I lamented over the state of our neighborhood playground. We live in an older neighborhood, and the playground was in a state of disrepair. Finally, after 12 years, I decided to take action a couple months ago by advocating for a new playground for my three young children. I went off to my first neighborhood homeowners association meeting – two hours later, I left the meeting as chair of the brand new playground committee! Needless to say, my children were thrilled with anticipation of the new playground Mommy is now helping plan for them.

I’m sharing this story because it emphasized something important about my role as a parent – I’m my child’s best advocate, and my advocacy can make a difference.

Unfortunately, my neighborhood playground isn’t the only broken thing requiring my attention. We’re facing a public health crisis with implications extending far beyond the happiness of my own children – measles, a vaccine-preventable disease, is threatening our healthy community. In Texas, health officials confirmed eight cases of measles this year so far and are bracing for more. We’re seeing outbreaks in other states across the nation, including New York and Washington State, where its governor declared a state of emergency.

[read:] Measles: Here’s what you need to know

Perhaps you’re wondering – why are these outbreaks occurring in the first place? Isn’t vaccination required for entry to day care, preschool and grade school? The answer is yes and no.

To help me address this question and speak to the importance of vaccine advocacy, I’ve invited my colleague, Rekha Lakshmanan  from the Houston-based non-profit, The Immunization Partnership – to join me on this blog post.

Texas requires vaccinations for day care, preschool and grade school entry; however, parents can exempt their child from vaccines for both medical and non-medical reasons. The law permitting non-medical exemptions passed in 2003 and, as a result, there were 2,324 exemptions filed the following year. This number has substantially increased each year – a staggering 56,738 non-medical exemptions were filed during the 2017-2018 school year.

So what does this mean for you, your family and your community?

Simply put, it means more parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children, thus lowering vaccine coverage levels throughout our state, communities and schools, often causing the outbreaks we’re experiencing today.

Sadly, Texas isn’t the only state suffering from such lax vaccine exemption laws. In California, unvaccinated children largely contributed to outbreaks of measles and pertussis (whooping cough) over the past few years. In Washington State and New York, the majority of measles patients are unvaccinated. As one of only 17 states allowing non-medical exemptions, Texas is now beginning to experience the effects of its lenient vaccine exemption policies through disease outbreaks, something many physicians and health officials have predicted for years.

As parents, it’s easy to take our legislators for granted – we assume most of them understand how critical vaccinations are to public health. However, if parents in their state and local communities don’t speak up and advocate for stronger vaccine policy, our lawmakers may not know how to best represent their constituents when it comes to vaccine-related legislation.

This is where you come in.

As a parent, you play a critical role in advocating for better vaccine policy in our great state – policies that safeguard the health of Texans and equip parents to make informed choices to better protect their children. For starters, we have a right to know the number of children with non-medical vaccine exemptions at our child’s school. However, it’s often difficult for parents to access this information. We can easily access school performance data alongside discipline reports – shouldn’t we also have access to information concerning the overall health of our schools?

What about parents with infants and young children in childcare? Childcare centers are some of the most vulnerable places for disease outbreaks. The vaccine coverage rate in your child’s day care center is an important factor to consider when selecting your provider. Parents should feel comfortable requesting this information, and childcare centers should be quick to share it.

Ultimately, it boils down to being an active advocate on behalf of your children. Perhaps you’re a busy working parent, struggling to balance too many responsibilities but wanting to make an impact. Or perhaps you’re a stay-at-home parent seeking engagement, but don’t know where to start. Advocacy may sound hard, intimidating and time-consuming, but advocacy can be whatever you’re able to give.

So what does becoming a vaccine advocate mean for you?

It could mean shooting a quick e-mail or call to your elected officials, asking for their help in supporting stronger vaccine policy. It could also mean gathering a small group of friends and making a road trip to Austin during this legislative session to meet with Texas Capitol staffers, share your stories and elaborate on why this issue is so important to you. Can’t leave the house because of the kids? Bring them along! We love to model civic engagement to our children, and legislators enjoy hearing from parents about issues that impact them and their families.

If you’re feeling ambitious, advocacy could mean sharing your story through testimony during legislative hearings or vocalizing your support for specific legislation as needed. The Immunization Partnership and Immunize Texas lay the grassroots foundation for pro-vaccine parents and community supporters, and they’re here to help you.

We each have the right to be heard by our elected officials. We also have the right to live in our community without fear of when the next vaccine-preventable disease outbreak is going to occur. But we also have the responsibility and privilege to be engaged citizens and to be vocal with our policymakers about why strong vaccine policy is so important. By becoming an advocate for vaccines, you can help reassure legislators that the majority of Texans support the irrefutable science behind them. We possess the powerful combination of evidence-based medicine, support from the public health and medical communities and our own voices.

For more information on becoming a parent vaccine advocate and sending a strong pro-vaccine message this legislative session, please contact: Rekha Lakshmanan – Director of Advocacy and Policy, The Immunization Partnership.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Immunization Project at Texas Children’s Hospital, click here