Education, Healthcare, West Virginia Legislature

WVU Medicine Children’s leader speaks on medical community’s opposition to vaccine exemption bill in state Senate

MORGANTOWN – At least nine bills concerning compulsory vaccinations are in the legislative can this session.

One in particular has raised concerns in the medical community and The Dominion Post spoke this past week with a leader at WVU Medicine Children’s Hospital about it.

SB 535 would change current law regarding vaccine exemptions for children entering a school or state-regulated daycare.

Current law says an exemption request must be accompanied by a physician’s certification that a child’s medical condition indicates against a vaccine, or there exists a specific precaution to a particular vaccine.

SB 535, introduced Feb. 1, retains that certification requirement but adds another factor: A parent may present a letter stating that a child may not be vaccinated for religious or philosophical reasons.

Dr. Jeffrey Lancaster, a pediatrician and hospitalist serving as the associate chief medical officer of WVU Medicine Children’s Hospital, spoke on WVUM’s – and the state medical community’s – concerns about the bill.

“It is very incongruent with the process for the medical exemption,” he said. “There’s really no rigor to getting an exemption if this one passes.”

Answering why they’re looking at this bill among all the others, he noted it has 12 sponsors (the two physician-senators are not among them) and it appears to be gaining traction at the Capitol (only six more senators would have to vote for it to send it to the House).

Lancaster said bills like this can spring up in Charleston without the complete awareness of the state’s residents. The vast majority of parents support school-age vaccinations, and parents who have kids who have medical reasons for not getting vaccinated appreciate that their children’s peers are vaccinated, for the herd immunity that provides.

“I’m worried that this bill is not the will of the people of the state,” he said. “We trust our elected officials to represent the needs and wants of West Virginians and I hope that they really consider the negative health consequences for children with this bill.”

He emphasized that this bill is not about COVID, but about protecting children, and others.

“West Virginia has had the nation’s most effective vaccine laws for children attending daycare or school,” he said. “It is shown, that as other states have weakened their vaccine laws, that they have had outbreaks of preventable diseases.”

Ohio is a good example, he said. Last year, Ohio saw 80 cases of measles in unvaccinated children, and 36 had to be hospitalized. While West Virginia shares a border with Ohio, we had no cases. “That’s continued testament about the effectiveness of the vaccines.”

Lancaster said non-scientific claims linking vaccines to autism have been repeatedly disproven. Autism appears in vaccinated children and unvaccinated children at the same rate.

“There are mountains and mountains of evidence about the safety and effectiveness of these vaccines,” and about how dangerous the diseases are, he said.

Childhood vaccines include MMR (German measles), H.Flu and strep pneumo (pneumococcal). Most cases are mild but some can be severe, he said. Measles is most dangerous for pregnant women who lack immunity. This can cause disease in the womb, and the baby is at high risk for neurological disease.

If the mom is unvaccinated, she’s safer when she’s surrounded by people who are immune, he said. These diseases, Lancaster said, all caused a lot of severe illness and death in the past. But in 20 years he’s never taken care of a child with polio or H.flu meningitis or hepatitis B.

Lancaster said the science shows that, typically, natural immunity is better and longer lasting than vaccine-mediated immunity. But you have to suffer through the disease to get it while a vaccine typically has mild to no symptoms.

The CDC, he said, estimated that in the period of 1994-2014, vaccines saved 732,000 American children from death. That divides out to 36,600 kids per year. And in 2020, West Virginia had 17,323 babies born – so vaccines saved two years’ worth of new West Virginia children each year.

Lancaster chose not to delve into the policy issue of the best way to vet parents’ religious and philosophical beliefs. He did note that the medical community prefers keeping current vaccine laws intact. The West Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the medical schools and the West Virginia Hospital Association are all keeping an eye on it.

SB 535 is in the Senate Health Committee, chaired by Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall and one of the Senate’s two physicians. The bill has not appeared on a committee agenda to date.

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