State must be careful in reviewing vaccination law

September 26, 2018

It was only a couple of generations ago that school children knew they would come down with measles, mumps and chickenpox before they hit high school. It was a matter of when, not if.

Thanks to West Virginia’s aggressive vaccination program, the incidences of those diseases have decreased significantly in recent years.

Speaking last year at an event organized by the West Virginia Immunization Network, Dr. Joseph Evans, chairman of pediatrics at Marshall’s medical school, said vaccinating children is one of the most important things to do to keep them well and healthy. Evans said he had never seen a case of measles, though doctors in states with lax vaccination laws do. Earlier in 2017, Minnesota faced the largest outbreak of the measles in decades after misinformation was spread about the vaccine.

Vaccination is a topic of concern again in West Virginia following a legislative interim Joint Committee on Children and Families meeting last week, where legislators drafted a bill to make it easier for families to get medical exemptions from vaccines for their children. The bill presumably will be introduced when the Legislature returns for its regular session in January.

Currently in West Virginia, parents who do not want their children to be vaccinated must request a medical exemption. A state immunization officer decides whether the exemption is granted. That system has been in place since 2015. Before that, exemptions were granted at the county level.

Since 2015,90 percent of exemption requests have been granted, Brian Skinner, general counsel at the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, told the legislators on the interim committee. Skinner said 280 requests have been granted. With that percentage of exemption requests allowed, there seems to be little reason for making exemptions easier to obtain.

The medical exemption for children is one that requires a physician’s approval. According to The Charleston Gazette, many of the doctors who testified at the meeting agreed that there are children who should be exempt. However, Dr. Bradley Henry, an internist in Charleston, said those children need to be protected by “herd immunity,” which prevents outbreaks with sufficient community vaccination levels.

“The problem is, when you allow too many people to be exempt, then you’re putting other children at (risk of) harm — especially those who can’t be vaccinated,” Henry said.

There’s the problem. Anti-vaccination sentiment draws on suspicions that vaccines do more harm than good. The idea that vaccines contain mercury and thus are a danger to children has been debunked, but forms of anti-vaccination sentiment remain.

The Hollywood Reporter recently examined immunization records submitted to the state of California by educational facilities. Children in wealthy areas dominated by the entertainment industry are far more likely to get sick (and potentially infect their siblings and playmates) than other kids in Los Angeles because more parents in this demographic are choosing not to vaccinate their children as medical experts advise, the newspaper reported.

Immunization rates in some areas are lower than in South Sudan, the newspaper reported.

The debate involves the schedule for immunizing, such as whether vaccines should be administered early in life or spread out over more years. The results, however, are that some diseases such as whooping cough, which had been almost eradicated, are making a comeback.

West Virginia health officials have done an excellent job in ensuring these diseases do not come back to the Mountain State. Perhaps the present system of granting exemptions is too onerous or too centralized.

If a bill altering the granting of exemptions for medical reasons is to be introduced, it needs a thorough vetting. It doesn’t need to be killed without a hearing. It doesn’t need to be rushed through. It needs to be done right lest decades of progress be undone.

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