The Times West Virginian

October 7, 2012

Immunizations: Public health vs. personal freedom

Times West Virginian

— In 1991, a Philadelphia-based religious group against childhood immunizations was traced back as the cause of a deadly measles outbreak, which killed eight people and infected at least 700 more.

Most recently, a little girl from Indiana visited an orphanage in Romania with her parents and didn’t just bring back a little brother or sister; she brought back a case of measles to her church group.

This time, 31 people were infected, the worst in a decade.

The measles is a disease targeted for eradication by the World Health Organization, as well as mumps and rubella. Huge strides have obviously been made with the introduction of the MMR vaccination, which protects from measles, mumps and rubella.

But one of the issues is that when parents choose not to vaccinate, people can contract these nearly eradicated diseases and spread them to others.

Vaccinations obviously work. Consider small pox. For many, many years, children carried the scar of one small pox blister on their arms. But by the late 1970s, the disease had been eradicated and the vaccination wasn’t needed anymore. My brother and I, born in 1975 and 1977 respectively, do not have the scar. However, our oldest siblings, born in 1970 and 1972, do. Just a few years can make a world of difference.

The issue is that parents who are Christian Scientists or belong to fundamental religious organizations do not believe in vaccinations.

And some parents who morally object to them or believe that vaccinations can cause their child to be at risk for developing autism don’t want their children to get the shots.

All but two states, including West Virginia and Mississippi, allow parents to choose to opt out of giving their children mandated vaccinations in order to attend public schools. The number of exemptions has dramatically increased, though many say it’s because parents morally object, not because of religious beliefs, but they use religion as an excuse on official forms.

The Associated Press studied states’ vaccination records and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information and found that many states are seeing increases in the rate of religious exemptions for kindergartners.

“Do I think that religious exemptions have become the default? Absolutely,” Dr. Paul Offit, head of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia told MSNBC, explaining that it is “an irrational, fear-based decision.”

It’s just a few thousand children out of 3.7 million enrolled in 2005, the latest year for these figures, but CDC and WHO officials say just these few thousand can be a huge risk for an outbreak in their area of nearly eradicated diseases.

“When you choose not to get a vaccine, you’re not just making a choice for yourself; you’re making a choice for the person sitting next to you,” Dr. Lance Rodewald, director of the CDC’s Immunization Services Division, told MSNBC.

The issue is now coming up in the Mountain State, as there are three lawsuits over students being kept out of classrooms for failing to get state-required immunizations. The lawsuits have been filed in Randolph, Ohio and Mercer counties. The Division of Health and Human Resources is intervening in the cases, since officials say West Virginia already has a low immunization rate for diseases like whooping cough, polio and measles, and those without the shots pose a great risk to the population.

So we asked our readers what they thought on our online poll question, which can be found each week at Last week we asked, “What are your thoughts on the West Virginia court cases where parents want their child to attend public school without state-required immunizations because of religious and moral reasons?

And here’s what you had to say:

• As long as the majority of kids are up to date on immunizations, there isn’t much risk — 3.06 percent.

• It’s a slippery slope to deny education based on religious reasons — 4.08 percent.

• No one should be forced to go against their religious and convictions so their child can attend public school — 19.39 percent

• Failure to immunize is to bring back nearly eradicated diseases. This is a public health issue — 73.47 percent.

We’ll see how it plays out in the court system.

But this week, speaking of voting, we want to know how much of an impact you believe the televised presidential debates actually have on how people choose the next president of the United States?

Log on. Vote. Email me or respond online.

Misty Poe

Managing Editor