By TAYLOR STUCK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — West Virginia is almost always in the bottom of health indexes, such as obesity, rate of heart attack and diabetes and lack of exercise.
But when it comes to vaccinating children against life-threatening diseases, the Mountain State beats almost every other state.
For their work in ensuring it stays that way, the West Virginia Immunization Network on Wednesday recognized all three medical schools in the state, their deans and former Wayne County Delegate Don Perdue at the 2017 Immunization Summit.
“They know firsthand how dangerous the diseases vaccines prevent can be, and when they saw the state regulations could be weakened, they spoke up for these vaccination laws that protect our children,” said Elaine Darling, program manager for the Immunization Network, part of the Center for Rural Health Development.
West Virginia has some of the lowest rates of vaccinations for children age 2 and younger, but because of the immunization requirements to go to school, the state catches up and is in the top once children reach kindergarten.
During the regular session of the state Legislature this year, a bill was introduced in the Senate that would have made a simpler process for West Virginians to establish grounds for medical exemptions to vaccinations and would allow them to establish religious exemptions from having to receive vaccinations to attend public or private schools or obtain a job if vaccinations are mandated by their employer.
Currently, any student attending a public or private pre-K-12 school in West Virginia must be immunized against chickenpox, hepatitis B, measles, meningitis, mumps, diphtheria, polio, rubella, tetanus and whooping cough.
The bill did not make it out of the Health and Human Resources Committee.
“The eradication of disease through a strong vaccine program is essential to our state’s public health, and we are proud to stand with our colleagues at WVU and the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine to oppose legislation that would have weakened our current laws,” said Dr. Joseph Shapiro, dead of the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University.
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.
“When I first came into practice 30 years ago, we saw cases of haemophilus influenza all the time,” Evans said. “If they got meningitis, they could die. It could cause deafness and blindness. It was awful. Now, I can’t remember the last case I saw. There are only 40 cases of it in the whole country. In the last 30 years, that’s the most exciting thing to happen in practice.”
Evans said he has also never seen a case of measles, though doctors in states with lax vaccination laws do. Just last month, Minnesota faced the largest outbreak of the measles in decades after misinformation was spread about the vaccine.
Darling said that could easily happen here, which is why it is so important to keep vaccination rates high.
Evans said he doesn’t encounter many parents who have fears about vaccines anymore, but there are some parents who want to spread out the vaccine schedule. He said doing that just keeps people at risk longer.
The annual West Virginia Immunization Summit is an action-oriented event targeted toward public and private sector organizations with an interest in addressing and resolving immunization issues in West Virginia. The two-day summit finished Wednesday night at the Charleston Civic Center.