Opinion, WVPA Sharing

Opinion: As a pediatrician and mom, I oppose House Bill 5105

By Lisa M. Costello, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.A.P

If there is one thing I know, both as a pediatrician and mother of a toddler, it’s that we West Virginians love our children fiercely. If you are a parent, grandparent or caregiver reading this, I know you care. This is why I want to alert you about a bill moving in the West Virginia legislature right now that would undermine children’s health and safety in ways that would be harmful for us all. And I want to ask for your help in stopping House Bill 5105.

West Virginia leads the nation in strong immunization requirements for school entry. Our strong school policies have resulted in our state having some of the nation’s highest immunization rates, protecting children, adolescents and our communities from preventable diseases. Neighboring states with weaker school-entry immunization policies are currently suffering outbreaks of preventable diseases such as measles, while West Virginia has seen no such outbreaks.

Yet, House Bill 5105 is trying to remove immunization requirements entirely for many students in private and parochial schools and in virtual public school; and it allows non-medical exemptions from immunization requirements in schools and childcare centers. When people can opt out of immunizations easily for non-medical reasons, that results in lower overall immunization rates. Even a small decrease in immunization rates can result in devastating outbreaks in communities.

I’ve served as president for two of our state’s largest medical associations, and I’ve worked with pediatricians from all over the country. Doing that, I have seen how states that offer non-medical exemptions to school immunization requirements see increases in vaccine-preventable illnesses as their immunization rates go down. There are measles cases in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and Florida right now, for example. I don’t want to see any child be sick with this incredibly contagious and life-threatening disease – or any illness, especially if it’s vaccine-preventable. I want my kid and all of West Virginia’s kids to be healthy, in school, learning and growing.

As a mother of a two-year-old about to start Catholic school in West Virginia, I am gravely concerned about this bill. Weakening our immunization policies would be catastrophic to the safety of all West Virginia’s children and would place my own toddler at higher risk of vaccine-preventable illnesses as she enters pre-school this year. My husband and I have gotten our daughter every immunization she is eligible for, but she’s not yet old enough to be fully vaccinated. That means she – like many West Virginians who are younger, elderly, pregnant, or have weakened immune systems – relies on community immunity. That is, she relies on getting protection from large numbers of others around her being immunized.

As a pediatrician, I have cared for kids who are doubled over in pain and gasping for breath. I strive to soothe and comfort them while I see their loved ones’ hearts sink. Anyone in my shoes or those caregivers’ shoes knows you would do anything to prevent that moment from happening.

Parents and caregivers make numerous decisions every single day with love, even when what one parent does is widely different from what another swears by. I respect the many decisions we all make in the contexts we make them for the people we love. That said, a single child’s immunization status affects their entire community, especially other children and adults who are at highest risk.

We West Virginians who love our children fiercely know how much we would wish away a child’s avoidable suffering if we could. And we know that one child’s life lost is one too many – especially when we have tools to prevent it. While there are many childhood illnesses that we cannot prevent, treat or cure, there are illnesses we can prevent with high immunization rates.

As a pediatrician, as a mother, as a lifelong West Virginian, as a Christian, and as your neighbor, I implore you to keep our child immunization policies strong. Please call and email our state senators to oppose House Bill 5105.

Dr. Lisa Costello is a pediatric hospitalist in Morgantown, W.Va., and past president of the West Virginia State Medical Association and the West Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, two of the state’s largest professional organizations of medical professionals serving children and adolescents. She and her husband are parents of a toddler.

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