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Don’t let the Legislature weaken our vaccination laws

Don’t let the Legislature weaken our vaccination laws

Jan. 8, 2020

By Mary Wade Burnside

Consider this from the World Health Organization:

“Vaccines prevented at least 10 million deaths between 2010 and 2015, and many millions more lives were protected from illness. The global push to end polio has reached its final stages, with just three remaining countries still working to eradicate this debilitating disease.”

And consider this from the past year: Measles was declared eliminated in the year 2000, following a goal that was set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1978 to eliminate it by 1982.

But in under two decades, 2019 became the year of a major measles resurgence, with 1,276 individual cases of measles in 31 states from Jan. 1 through Dec. 5. Those figures will be updated soon.

And guess which state was one of 19 that didn’t have a measles case? West Virginia, which has some of the strictest vaccination laws, only allowing exceptions for those who truly cannot safely have vaccinations for medical reasons, but not religious, philosophical or exemptions based on personal beliefs.

Yet, our local legislators tell us that those who want to weaken our vaccination laws are coming on stronger and stronger.

Monongalia County Health Department hosted legislators from around North Central West Virginia in mid-December review what public health officials wish to see addressed in the upcoming legislative session that begins today.Sure, we’d love to see state health department budgets restored to previous funding levels that were cut by 25% a few years ago.

Public health is an important investment that helps keep everyone safe. Our services include not only immunizations but also free and anonymous STD testing and treatment; family planning; inspections of restaurants, day care centers, pools, hotels, motels and tattoo parlors; surveillance of diseases including those carried by vectors such as raccoons, ticks and mosquitoes as well as infectious illnesses such as influenza, hepatitis and tuberculosis; and unfunded public health issues of opioids, substance use disorder, unintentional overdose deaths, human trafficking, hepatitis and HIV outbreaks.

But as it stands now, we’ve already lost ground recently in West Virginia when it comes to children’s immunization and three vaccines: hepatitis A, Haemophilus influenza B (Hib) and pneumococcal disease. Those were part of the schedule for kids to be able to get into a West Virginia-approved preschool classroom.

Because of a loophole—it’s not specified in the state code—officials were convinced by those opposed to vaccines to remove this requirement. These vaccinations are recommended by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP).

At Monongalia County Health Department, this is especially frustrating. It hasn’t even been three months since a Morgantown restaurant employee was found to have been working while infectious with hepatitis A. That put everyone who had eaten at that restaurant within a certain time frame potentially at risk and on notice to get vaccinated. The health department fielded many phone calls and our public health nurses worked extra hours in order to get everyone who showed up immunized against hepatitis A.

Anyone who already had the vaccine could breathe easy knowing they were protected.

It’s like my boss, Dr. Lee B. Smith, MCHD executive director and county health officer, notes about rabies. People who are bitten by a rabid cat or who tussle with their bloody dog who just got into a fight with a rabid raccoon do not question the safety of a lifesaving rabies vaccine.

I am also reminded of an anti-vaxxer acquaintance who posted a video about measles vaccines meant to scare the public. There are times when parents, looking for an answer as to why their baby died from sudden infant death (SIDS), wonder if vaccines are the cause.

The CDC has addressed this issue, noting that babies receive many vaccines between the ages of 2 and 4 months old, which is also the peak timing of death attributed to SIDS. “However, studies have found that vaccines do not cause and are not linked to SIDS,” the CDC states.

Undeterred, however, my friend couldn’t understand why the vaccine was required when there are so few measles deaths.

I had to ask if she had ever considered that there were not many measles deaths because of the vaccine. She had not.

It’s also not fair for people to expect for their children to be protected by herd immunity provided by those kids whose parents understand that the science is clearly on the side of vaccines. If fewer children are vaccinated, herd immunity will dwindle. To be effective, herd immunity requires 95% participation. It is unfortunate that children with legitimate medical reasons to not be vaccinated must rely on others to become vaccinated, but that is the case.

Some consider measles and chickenpox to be common childhood illnesses that are almost a rite of passage. But they can cause serious complications. Of the 1,276 reported measles cases in 2019, 124 people were hospitalized and 61 reported complications that included pneumonia and encephalitis.

All from a vaccine-preventable illness.

A saying that has become popular lately is that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. And the fact is, vaccines are the No. 1 advancement in public health in the 20th century.

We are now one-fifth of the way into the 21st century. Why are we moving backwards on this?

Mary Wade Burnside is the public information officer at Monongalia County Health Department.

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