McLennan County has had its first confirmed mumps case since 2015, the state is seeing the highest number of mumps cases in 20 years, and local health officials are urging parents to make sure they and their children are up-to-date on vaccinations.

But legislative action in Austin and an increasing number of Texas children going without immunization have caused doctors to worry about how children would be protected from illnesses, especially during outbreaks like a few that occurred in Texas last year, the Associated Press reported.

The Texas House approved a measure Friday prohibiting emergency immunizations for children recently taken into state custody from abusive or neglectful living situations, according to the AP.

On Monday, Waco Independent School District alerted parents to a confirmed case of mumps at Bell’s Hill Elementary School, after a student was diagnosed by a local physician. District officials also were concerned that another student at University High School may have been exposed to the virus, but district officials could not say how.

Waco ISD officials would not say whether the students had been vaccinated, what grade the students were in or whether they were related, citing privacy laws, but district policy states no student will be allowed to attend school without proper documentation of immunization or a valid medical or conscientious exemption.

A district spokesperson said the number of local exemptions filed was not available but has been relatively low.

The district is working closely with the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District to address the issue and educate parents about the illness, said Candice Marecle, a registered nurse and Waco ISD’s coordinator of student health services.

“It’s something we’ve been following, but since we’ve had a confirmed case, we’ve been speaking with the health district daily,” Marecle said. “Nurses are looking for all the symptoms the state health services have listed.”

Mumps, a contagious disease caused by a virus, often starts with a fever, headache, muscle aches, tiredness and loss of appetite over a few days, followed by swollen salivary glands. It can be contracted through coughing, sneezing or talking, sharing items or touching contaminated surfaces. Symptoms typically appear 16 to 18 days after infection, but the state health department said up to 20 percent of people infected may not show any signs of the illness.

District officials disinfected Bell’s Hill and University on Monday night after the cases were discovered and canceled any remaining after-school activities for the day, Waco ISD spokesperson Bruce Gietzen said.

This is the first case tied to a McLennan County school district in 15 years, health district spokeswoman Kelly Craine said. No other school district in the area has had a recent case, Craine said.

November advisory

But the county and school district have been on alert about a potential case of mumps popping up since November, when the Texas Department of State Health Services sent out a health advisory about the increase in cases statewide.

The department sent another advisory in April, saying state, regional and local health departments were investigating multiple outbreaks, including one outbreak of 13 cases possibly linked to spring breakers on South Padre Island.

“We believe in vaccines at the health district. It’s changed health for many people in many communities. It’s eliminated many diseases,” Craine said. “We want to approach this with respect to parents and parents’ rights. . . . When people ask about vaccines and concerns, my response is it’s important to have that relationship with your pediatrician and your physician (and talk about what’s best).”

In December, 28 people, mostly children, in Johnson County were diagnosed with mumps, according to The Dallas Morning News. The virus was traced to an outbreak in Arkansas, the newspaper reported. This did not include the number of students who might have possibly been exposed to the illness, the article said.

The local health district has yet to determine where the local patient may have picked up the virus, but that is part of the ongoing investigation, Craine said.

From Jan. 1 to April 22, 2,570 people in the United States have been infected with mumps across 42 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the CDC reports mumps is no longer considered common in the U.S., 5,833 cases were reported last year, and the average number of cases from year to year typically ranges from a couple hundred to a couple thousand.

Prior to the mumps vaccine program starting in 1967, about 186,000 cases were reported each year, meaning there has been more than a 99 percent decrease in the number of cases since, the CDC website states.

“We’ve seen mumps increasing throughout the country the past few years, so the risk is out there,” Craine said. “The best way to prevent this is through vaccination and making sure they’re up-to-date on vaccinations.

“If your child is showing symptoms, don’t feel like you’re being paranoid. Take your child to the doctor and keep your doctor informed of what’s going on.”

But for those who think vaccinating a child is an obvious choice and should be required and state-mandated, one Texas group is fighting back on principle. The decision should be in the hands of parents, not the state, said Jackie Schlegel, executive director of Texans for Vaccine Choice.

“For us, this is an issue of who gets to make the decision for these children,” Schlegel said. “Is it the state or is the individual?”

Texans for Vaccine Choice, a political action committee, has been lobbying state lawmakers since its formation in 2015. The group was organized in response to a state representative’s planned bill to end vaccine exemptions at public schools, the group’s website states.

Texas, one of 18 states that allows philosophical exemptions to vaccinations for public school students, has had 44,000 parents file personal-belief exemptions for the 2015-16 school year, according to the AP. That is nearly a “twentyfold jump from 2003,” it reported. Though numbers were not available, Waco ISD has seen a low number of exemptions, Gietzen said.

At least eight bills were filed in this legislative session directly related to vaccine exemptions and requirements, according to the Legislature’s website.

Better protection

While vaccines may not be 100 percent effective, the more people who are vaccinated, the better protected the population as a whole will be, said Dr. Roland Goertz, executive director of the Family Health Center in Waco. The center only occasionally handles a situation in which a parent would like to opt out of vaccinations, Goertz said.

“Fortunately in our area, it’s not as large of an opt-out option as in other areas of the state,” Goertz said. “It’s the composition of the area. You have a pretty significant health care system in the area, and we try to educate the population in every way.”

For those who have chosen to opt out, Goertz said he has seen the argument dramatically shift from being about religion or philosophy, to “I’m the parent. It’s my right.” Science proves vaccines help eradicate disease, and that is something that cannot be ignored, Goertz said.

“In a way, that argument is true until it impacts society as a whole,” Goertz said. “If you drop below a certain percentage of people who are vaccinating, you could see resurgence.

“When I was training 30 years ago, I took care of those kids (who did not or could not get vaccinated). I saw some of them die. I’ve been in practice long enough that I hardly see that as much and I’m so glad, but I would hate to see resurgence in that because of people promoting bad science.”

If you have questions or concerns about mumps, contact the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District at the 24-hour disease reporting line at 750-5411.

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