Rich White Texans Are Running With Anti-Vax Misinformation

Texas permits “philosophical objection" to get kids out of vaccination, and is one of the only states that doesn’t require education on the associated risks of skipping them.
Hand holding syringe in plain pink background
Photo by Rebecca van Ommen via Getty Images

New research from University of Texas at Austin took a closer look into the state’s growing anti-vaccination movement and discovered it’s fueled by rich, white people.

The study, which was published in the journal PLOS Medicine on Tuesday, added up the conscientious vaccination exemptions (CVEs)—non-medical reasons to not get vaccinated—across the top 10 metropolitan areas in Texas schools between 2012 and 2018. It found that people who are college-educated, higher-income, and white are less likely to vaccinate their children.


The researchers found that, between 2012 and 2018, the CVE percentage in Texas schools more than doubled, with about 24,000 additional students who used an exemption. The increases, which were most prevalent in suburbs, grew from 2 to 6 percent in public schools, 20 to 26 percent in private schools, and from 17 to 22 percent in charter schools.

Why is this happening? Science shows that vaccines work — each and every vaccine out there is repeatedly tested and re-assessed until it’s proven to be undeniably safe and effective. Stephen Sonnenberg, a medical humanities and medical ethics scholar at The University of Texas at Austin, said there’s a “growing culture of skepticism” toward research. “We are living in a world where there are tremendous pressures to deny the findings of science. We also know that many people who deny science are educated people,” Sonnenberg said in a statement. A Pew Research Center survey from 2019 found that most Americans question the integrity of research, and incorrectly assume a good portion of scientists may have some conflict of interest to the work. If you don’t trust a scientist’s motives, why would you trust their findings?

Other health experts believe that privileged people have more time to spend consuming information online, including misinformation about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines—like, that vaccines are linked to autism (false), or that they can overwhelm the immune system (nope), or that natural infection provides better immunity than infection (not true!). After reading up online, many non-medical experts feel they know "what's best" for their child—something experts call “the privilege of choice.” (Low-income, ethnically diverse areas are also often under-vaccinated, but that’s mostly due to access plus financial and religious reasons.)


Texas isn't an anomaly. Early evidence has discovered that pockets in California are seeing the same vaccine hesitancy amongst college-educated white people. These states represent what’s happening in terms of the anti-vax movement across the country. Recent studies have found that hotspots in other states (like California, Arizona, Oregon, and Colorado) largely consist of well-off white people who don’t trust vaccines.

All 50 states currently require children to be vaccinated for school attendance unless they qualify for a medical exemption; forty-five of those states also allow religious exemptions. Texas is one of 15 states that permits families to use a “philosophical objection”—a personal, moral, or other belief—to get out of vaccination. It’s also one of the only states that doesn’t require education on the risks of going unvaccinated. The states’ lenient vaccination policies allowed for rich white people's invocation of personal reasons to not vaccinate—as a result, vaccine hesitancy—and, so, vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks—have surged.

These rising CVE levels across the United States are a massive public health concern. When someone goes unvaccinated, they can not only introduce an outbreak to an area, but help sustain it. Just look at measles: In 2000, the disease was declared eliminated, thanks to a new vaccine. Flash forward to 2019, when, in one year alone, there were 1,282 reported cases of measles in anti-vax hotspots mostly within Washington and New York. Infectious diseases like measles are completely preventable with vaccination, but when groups of people aren’t immune to a disease, the community loses its herd immunity—that invisible protective wall that goes up when most of the population (96 to 99 percent) is immune to a disease.

Many young parents have never witnessed firsthand diseases like measles before (measles’ heyday was in the early to mid 1900s, after all). They may underestimate the true threat of vaccine-preventable diseases and be all the more likely to fall for the inaccurate anti-vax messages they read online, because they just don't know what they don't know. "The risk assessment capacity is broken," Sonnenberg said. "The widespread experience of deadly infectious disease is absent from the life experience of younger parents.”

Health disparities tend to skew in the opposite direction—people with fewer resources are usually at greater risk, said the study's author, Lauren Ancel Meyers, in an interview with VICE. "Our study shows the opposite trend. The risks of outbreaks from vaccine-preventable diseases are highest in communities with greater access to resources and education."

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