Strong immunization policies keep West Virginia’s children safe
West Virginia has long been considered a leader when it comes to our immunization rates of school-age children. The effectiveness of our current school immunization policies have resulted in high vaccination rates and low rates of vaccine-preventable diseases.
A small contingent would like to loosen West Virginia’s immunization policies that have been working to keep our children safe for decades, and discussions are underway by our state legislators now to allow nonmedical exemptions to these policies. These nonmedical exemptions will ultimately result in an unnecessary and dangerous public health risk.
As pediatricians with more than 61 years of combined experience caring for West Virginia children, we recognize just how fortunate we are to have never had to treat a case of measles. In fact, if you are under the age of 50, you likely don’t know anyone who has suffered from measles, mumps, polio or tetanus. You haven’t seen the birth defects, hearing loss, paralysis and death that can result from them.
The reason that we don’t have to talk about the effects of these childhood illnesses is because most children in the U.S. are immunized against these diseases. Even those who aren’t able to be vaccinated benefit from the general population’s increased immunity that results from immunizing most children.
This is what we call “herd” or “community” immunity. Herd immunity becomes particularly important when we think about protecting infants who are too young to receive the vaccine, children who cannot be vaccinated due to certain medical conditions and other students, teachers, or family members with compromised immune systems.
West Virginia is one of six states including Mississippi, California, New York, Connecticut and Maine, that only allow medical exemptions from school immunization requirements. Many of these states have used West Virginia’s immunization policies as a model to strengthen their own immunization requirements after those states experienced measles outbreaks.
In 2019, 31 states had measles cases, the highest number of cases diagnosed in our country since 1994. In the fall and winter of 2022, a measles outbreak in Ohio among unvaccinated children resulted in 80 confirmed cases with 36 of those cases requiring hospitalization. During these measles outbreaks, West Virginia did not have a single case.
The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends immunizations as the safest and most cost-effective way of preventing disease, disability and death. The AAP calls for the on-time, routine immunization of all children and adolescents starting at birth and through school-age years.
Since 2017, West Virginia’s kindergarten immunization rates have been at or above 96%, consistently exceeding the national averages and protecting our children, families, schools and communities from dangerous yet preventable diseases that are now frequently occurring in areas where immunization laws are not as strong.
As pediatricians, parents, and West Virginians, we urge our legislators to put the health and safety of our children first. The actions you take now to keep our immunization requirements strong by not allowing nonmedical exemptions will prevent dangerous diseases from entering our schools and communities.
Let’s keep West Virginia’s children protected.
This article appeared in the February 8, 2023, edition of the Herald Dispatch.
Dr. Joseph E. Evans is chief medical officer of Marshall Health and a professor of pediatrics at the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine. This column was co-authored by Dr. Susan L. Flesher, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the medical school and by Dr. Beth B. Emrick, an associate professor at the medical school and president of the West Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
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