The case of measles revealed last week in Collin County was the first reported in Texas this year. It matched the total number of measles cases reported to the state in all of 2015.
News of the latest case came out when Collin County Health Care Services sent a letter Jan. 12 to parents of students at the Plano ISD school the infected student attends. Parents at Schell Elementary School in Richardson apparently took the news in stride. Attendance for the week was about the same before and after the letter went out, according to data supplied by the district.
Wider publicity about the case this week also had no discernible effect on the percentage of students who showed up either at the school or districtwide Tuesday.
That doesnâ€™t mean the case hasnâ€™t already had an effect. State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, had pushed a bill last legislative session that could have curtailed nonmedical exemptions for student vaccinations. He tweeted Tuesday that he would refile that bill for next yearâ€™s session.
His efforts last year didnâ€™t even get a hearing because several other vaccination-related bills had already been blasted in committee hearings by people opposed to vaccines, Villalba said. He said he hoped the political climate would be different next year.
Even if the latest case turns out to be isolated, he still thinks that restricting the ability of parents to opt out of vaccinating their children is worth pursuing.
â€œThe problem with this Legislature and most legislatures is they are very reactive in nature. We usually address problems after the event has occurred that hurts our communities,â€ he said. â€œMy role as a legislator is to be proactive so we arenâ€™t having a discussion in a year about how to fix this problem.â€
Those on the other side say that vaccinations can pose a danger to children â€” despite medical evidence lacking for some of their claims â€” and that parents should be allowed to choose their childrenâ€™s medical care without government interference.
Several questions about the Plano Independent School District case remained unanswered:
Why was the student not vaccinated?
Based on age and grade, Texas public school students are required to be vaccinated for diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis A and B, varicella and meningococcal disease.
But state law allows parents to claim an exemption based on reasons of conscience, including religious belief. There are also unusual medical conditions, generally involving a childâ€™s immune system, that would allow a parent to claim the exemption.
District officials say privacy laws block them from releasing more details about the student.
Why did the notification go out so many days after the child showed symptoms?
Thatâ€™s not clear. The county epidemiologist told The Dallas Morning News that the child had traveled to an unspecified foreign country, went to school Jan. 5 and showed signs of measles the next day. The letter was sent out six days later.
Whatâ€™s the risk that the disease was passed on to others?
Plano school officials said this week that the school got an extra cleaning after the district was notified about the illness. But unless someone else at the school was infected â€” there have been no additional reports â€” the building itself had been safe long before the letter was sent out.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus stays infectious in the air for up to two hours. But once it hits a surface, it loses its ability to infect even faster. The virus also succumbs quickly to sunlight, heat and standard cleaning materials.
The virus can incubate as long as 21 days, so itâ€™s still possible that others were infected. But if nobody else develops symptoms, this outbreak is likely limited to the one student. Unlike some other illnesses, the virus canâ€™t hide in bugs or other critters; humans are the only natural hosts of measles virus.
How many other students at Schell Elementary are also unvaccinated?
The state requires school districts to maintain a list of all unvaccinated students, in case health officials need to have them isolated in an epidemic or other medical emergency. A Plano ISD spokeswoman said the district was determining how to break down that information by campus and whether there would be restrictions in releasing the data.
In 2000, measles was declared eliminated from the United States. But every year, a few cases crop up like this one: Someone visits a country where the illness is still active and brings it back. If that person returns to a population of other unvaccinated people, the virus can spread.
Thatâ€™s what happened in California in 2014, when a measles outbreak that began at Disneyland infected more than 100 people and spread far beyond the theme park.
For Villalba, thatâ€™s the kind of problem he wants to make less likely. His bill would have eliminated the â€œconscienceâ€ option and required parents who want to use a religious objection to define it in writing.
The bottom line, he said, is that medical science expressed by expert after expert is clear:
â€œOverwhelmingly, they have said the harm that we do by not vaccinating our children far outweighs any concern that the vaccination process somehow could cause come maladies,â€ Villalba said.