AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texas researchers have identified a population of people in the state who are less likely to vaccinate their children.

According to analysis published this week by the University of Texas at Austin, Texans who live in urban or suburban areas, are college-educated, have higher median incomes and are ethnically white are less likely to vaccinate their children.

The study was published in PLos Medicine journal by UT Austin computational epidemiologist Lauren Ancel Meyers and her team. They tallied the number of conscientious vaccination exemptions from public, private and charter school systems across the state with census data.

Lauren Ancel Meyers, computational epidemiologist at the University of Texas at Austin, in her office. (Nexstar Photo/Juan Salinas

“The study not only provides a window into local vaccination patterns throughout Texas, but also allows us to make predictions,” Meyers said. “If you don’t have data on the vaccination rate for a given community, you can use demographic factors to predict outbreak risks for vaccine-preventable diseases.”

Texas is one of 15 states allowing families to opt out of required school immunizations if they cite philosophical objections.

Schools and districts that have exemption rates of 3% or higher are considered “high risk” for an outbreak of vaccine-preventable illness. According to the findings, the percentage of school districts reporting high-risk levels of exemptions doubled in public school districts around Texas, rising from 3% to 6% from the 2012-2013 school year to the 2017-2018 school year.

High-risk private schools increased from 20% to 26%, and charter schools rose from 17% to 22%, the study revealed.

Researchers reviewed the top 10 metropolitan areas in Texas, incorporating urban, suburban, and rural communities within each metro region.

Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston had the highest risk of immunization opt-outs. Higher-income urban and suburban areas were more likely to have high vaccination exemption rates, according to the study.

Communities with higher percentages of young children, ethnically white people, and people with a bachelor’s degree were more likely to have higher vaccination exemption rates, the study found.

“We wanted to identify potential pockets of hidden risk throughout Texas stemming from declining childhood vaccination rates,” Meyers said.

Alternatively, the team found lower vaccine opt-out rates in counties with lower median income and higher percentage of people who spoke a language other than English at home.

“This study allows us to detect potential hot spots at a finer geographic scale,” Meyers said. “The increasing numbers of exemptions are already alarming.”

“In addition, the clustering of unvaccinated children in tight communities only amplifies the risk of an outbreak,” she added.

Travis County has a 2.3% conscientious exemption rate, according to the Department of State Health Services. Meyers found pockets of higher rates in the county.

The team reviewed 318 private, 818 public, and 60 charter school systems.

An announcement about the study from the university estimated 5% of public schools in the state’s metro areas are at risk for an outbreak, 28% of private schools and 22% of charter schools are at risk.

The median conscientious vaccination exemption percentages increased from 0.38% to 0.79%, resulting in more than 24,000 additional vaccination-exempt students, the review revealed.

Researchers hoped their findings could “inform targeted interventions to combat the rising but heterogeneous risks of disease emergence across Texas.”

The study did not indicate why certain demographic groups opt out at higher rates.

Meanwhile, state health officials said in January that Texans are sick with the flu in record numbers.

Data from the Texas Department of State Health Services revealed nearly 16% of doctor visits at that time were related to flu-like illness, which marked the highest percentage in the last decade.

“Aside from getting a flu vaccine, washing your hands is really important,” Dr. Jennifer Shuford, infectious disease medical officer with the Texas Department of State Health Services said. “If you are sick, washing your hands to keep from spreading to other people, covering your coughs and sneezes and staying home from work if you have flu symptoms.”

“There is nothing novel about any of that,” Shuford said. “It is the same old same old, but it is effective.”

Undergraduate student Maike Morrison and Lauren Castro of Los Alamos National Laboratory co-authored the paper.