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Vaccinations, freedom and responsibility

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Vaccinations, freedom and responsibility

Feb 22, 2024 | 5:55 am ET
By Ellen Allen
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Vaccinations, freedom and responsibility
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West Virginia hasn't experienced a measles outbreak like surrounding states because of strict immunization laws that have led to high vaccination rates in school-age children. (Getty Images)

If you’ve been living anywhere other than under a rock, chances are you’ve seen a headline or two recently regarding a measles outbreak that is continuing to spread. Measles is on the rise around the world, and even experts who saw it coming say the increase is “staggering.”

Measles was declared eliminated in 2000 — meaning the disease “is no longer constantly present in this country.” However, the dip in routine childhood vaccinations in recent years as well as travelers bringing measles into the country has resulted in outbreaks.

As of Jan. 25, 2024, a total of nine measles cases were reported by four jurisdictions: Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Between Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2023, a total of 58 measles cases were reported by 20 jurisdictions: California, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, New York City, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

In 2022, Ohio saw 80 cases of measles in unvaccinated children — 36 had to be hospitalized. 

Four of these states border the Mountain State, yet no cases of measles have been reported. 

So, one might wonder, with an outbreak of measles in states bordering West Virginia, what is preventing such an outbreak here at home?

Clue — it doesn’t take an epidemiologist to figure this one out: 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. Science and medicine have informed West Virginia public health policy. 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. 

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. As of this writing, 20 anti-vaccination bills have been introduced this legislative session — one of which is working its way through the House of Delegates and would repeal vaccination requirements for public virtual, private and parochial school children. 

Where are these bills coming from, and why? 

Rather than touting the success of West Virginia’s excellent immunization model, some delegates and state senators have openly expressed skepticism about West Virginia’s childhood vaccine laws.

Legislators’ criticisms include that the government is restricting people’s religious freedom. After all, who doesn’t love freedom? Frankly, I appreciate the freedom to live free from diseases that were once considered eradicated.

Misinformation and misconception also impacts confidence in immunization rates.

During the outbreak in Columbus, Ohio that lasted from November 2022 to February 2023, public health officials said many parents of the unvaccinated children infected with measles had chosen not to have their kids receive the MMR shot due to misconceptions that it causes autism.

Experts said the COVID-19 pandemic caused another problem: During the early days of the pandemic, people were scared to go to doctors’ offices, which led to a delay in children being up-to-date on vaccinations. Then, after COVID-19 vaccines became politicized, this may have caused a decrease in confidence in vaccination overall.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning clinicians to remain on alert for measles cases due to a growing number of infections. A CDC report in November found that exemptions for routine childhood vaccination among U.S. kindergartners are at their highest levels ever.

If some West Virginia lawmakers have their way, our children could be at a much higher risk from a preventable disease. Is this really what the majority of West Virginians want? Are we willing to roll the dice with the lives of our young children? Does anyone really believe this is freedom? 

While this Legislature ponders the benefits of science and medicine against “freedom,” the World Health Organization identifies vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health. 

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, just at the time we are considering rolling back laws based on sound public health policy. 

West Virginia can prevent these outbreaks — we have. We are. We urge lawmakers to follow the science. Follow the medicine. Follow best practices. West Virginia is leading the way in immunization policy — leave those policies alone and in place.