West Virginia’s highly effective immunization laws protect our children and communities
By: Ellen Allen
November 30, 2023
I remember my mother — who just celebrated her 91st birthday earlier this month — recalling her three children all having the measles at the same time. As the youngest of three, I have no recollection, but even at the ripe old age of 91 my mother remembers the anguish and exhaustion of caring for all three of us.
She recalls the fear: there were childhood deaths from the measles only a generation before in her own family.
I not only had the measles. I had mumps. I had chicken pox.
My own daughter is 29 years old. Sarah avoided all these childhood diseases thanks to the advances in science and medicine that created life-saving vaccines. And because her father and I followed the recommendations for immunizations.
Childhood immunizations and regular seasonal vaccinations save lives.
Vaccines are some of the safest and most effective medicines we have, and they have made many dangerous childhood diseases rare today. In fact, vaccination has made an enormous contribution to global health. Two major infections, smallpox and rinderpest, have been eradicated.
Polio has almost been eradicated and success in controlling measles makes this infection another potential target for eradication. Despite these successes, approximately 6.6 million children still die each year and about one-half of these deaths are caused by infections, including pneumonia and diarrhea, which could be prevented by vaccination.
It is always better to prevent a disease than to treat one after it occurs.
- Vaccination is a safe, highly effective, and easy way to help keep your family healthy.
- The recommended vaccination schedule balances when a child is likely to be exposed to a disease and when a vaccine will be most effective.
- Vaccines are tested to ensure they can be given safely and effectively at the recommended ages.
CDC vaccine information statements (VIS) explain both the benefits and risks of a vaccine. Your health care provider can give you the VIS for any vaccine.
West Virginia leads the nation among the best and safest from vaccine-preventable illness and disease, thanks to our current vaccination and immunization laws. According to state epidemiologist Shannon McBee, the Mountain State has long had an exemplary immunization model.
West Virginia is one of only a handful of states that doesn’t allow immunization exemptions based on religious or philosophical beliefs. Children attending public school in the state are exempt from vaccinations only if there is a medical reason, such as an allergy to the vaccine. As such, the state also has one of the highest child immunization rates in the country. Bravo, West Virginia.
A strong public health policy has allowed West Virginia to remain a leader in the nation regarding school-age vaccination rates. Having those high immunization rates have allowed us to better protect our communities.
However, some West Virginia lawmakers are trying to change, and even rollback, our immunization laws — and that’s a dangerous road to head down.
Moreover, according to information from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, 68 students requested a medical exemption from a vaccine requirement in 2022, up from 27 in 2021 and 29 in 2020. Of those, 14 were granted a permanent medical exemption and 34 got a temporary exemption. Seventeen requests for an exemption were denied.
Overall, immunization rates remain high and haven’t changed much at the national level. But a pair of reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about immunizations for preschoolers and kindergartners highlights a growing concern among health officials and clinicians about children who aren’t getting the necessary protection against vaccine-preventable diseases, such as measles, whooping cough and other pediatric infectious diseases.
A small but increasing number of children in the United States are not getting some or all their recommended vaccinations. The percentage of children under 2 years old who haven’t received any vaccinations has quadrupled in the last 17 years, according to federal health officials.
The World Health Organization identifies vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health.
Vaccinations not only protect your child from deadly diseases, such as polio, tetanus, and diphtheria, but they also keep other children safe by eliminating or greatly decreasing dangerous diseases that used to spread from child to child.
For more than 30 years, Mississippi and West Virginia were the only two states that did not offer nonmedical exemptions to school vaccination laws. But other states seem to be moving in this direction, such as California, which in 2015 eliminated nonmedical exemptions following the Disneyland measles outbreak. Maine did away with nonmedical exemptions in 2019, after a whooping cough outbreak. That same year, New York did away with nonmedical exemptions after the state found itself at the center of a measles outbreak that pushed the number of cases past 1,000 — the highest in U.S. history since the disease was declared eradicated. Connecticut joined the list in 2021, after it became clear the number of unvaccinated children in schools was on a steady upswing.
There are a lot of things not going our way in West Virginia; however, public health policy regarding immunization laws is not one of them. We urge lawmakers to follow the science. Follow the medicine. Follow best practices. West Virginia is leading the way in immunization policy.
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