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Opinion: West Virginia is a national leader in childhood immunizations – let’s stay protected

By Charles J. Mullett, MD, PhD, FAAP

Chair, Department of Pediatrics, WVU School of Medicine

Kathryn S. Moffett, MD, FAAP

Division Chief, Pediatric Infectious Diseases, WVU School of Medicine, and

Lisa M. Costello, MD, MPH, FAAP

Assistant Professor, Pediatrics, WVU School of Medicine

West Virginia has long led the nation in an important public health measure: school-age immunization rates. West Virginia has one of the most effective school immunization policies in the nation, resulting in high vaccination rates and low rates of vaccine-preventable diseases.

West Virginia’s effective immunization policies should be kept strong by not allowing nonmedical exemptions.

However, there is a minority who want to loosen our state’s childhood immunization requirements to allow nonmedical exemptions. This is being presented to our state legislators now. Any nonmedical exemptions will place our children, residents and communities at an unnecessary public health risk for dangerous, yet preventable, diseases and illnesses.

Most of us have little to no memory of the afflictions associated with once-debilitating diseases such as polio, tetanus, measles and mumps. If you are under the age of 50 years, you probably don’t know anyone who has suffered from these diseases, and 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.

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 requirements as a model to strengthen their 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.

In other parts of the U.S., where immunization rates have fallen to unsafe levels, outbreaks of preventable illnesses have posed an unnecessary threat to public health, particularly among the very young and others with compromised immune systems.

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.

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.

In order to safeguard our population at most risk, including those with a weakened immune system or those too young to be vaccinated, a large portion of the state’s residents need to be protected by immunizations. Having a highly vaccinated community protects not only the children who receive vaccines, it also helps to prevent the diseases from being spread to infants who are too young to be vaccinated, other children who cannot be vaccinated due to certain medical conditions, and other students and their family members who may be at risk of severe illness if exposed to vaccine-preventable infections.

As pediatricians, parents and residents of our beautiful state, we implore our legislators to not take risks with the lives of our children. West Virginia’s effective immunization policies should be kept strong by not allowing nonmedical exemptions. West Virginia school immunization requirements are keeping these diseases out of our communities and schools and protecting our children and the most vulnerable among us – let’s stay protected.