West Virginia law would jeopardize public’s health

Allowing tens of thousands of students to forego vaccinations would mean whole populations could lose their immunity to serious — sometimes fatal — diseases. Among the more pernicious is measles.

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Editorials

March 14, 2024 - 3:07 PM

West Virginia lawmakers ruled earlier this week that private and parochial school students need not get vaccinated against many childhood diseases including polio, measles and chicken pox. The decision has many health authorities worried, especially due to an uptick in U.S. measles cases. Photo by (Getty Images)

West Virginia lawmakers recently approved dropping the state’s immunization standards for students attending private or parochial schools or in virtual formats. The decision affects about 40,000 children who are either home-schooled or attend private school, meaning thousands could not only lack vital protections against deadly diseases, but also endanger the general public as well. With some of the lowest life expectancy rates in the country and a quarter of all children living in poverty, West Virginia can ill afford such a reckless move.

Of the diseases prevented by routine childhood vaccinations, measles ranks among the more serious.

Studies begun in 2012 demonstrate the measles virus targets certain immune cells — our bodies’ defense mechanism. When compromised, these cells that were once resistant to other viruses like the chickenpox, lose their oomph. Referred to as “immune amnesia,” this sustained weakening of the immune system is why those who contract measles often succumb to secondary infections.

Doctors also figure it takes three years for the body to fully recuperate from measles in order to rebuild its immune system.  

“A measles infection is playing Russian roulette with a child’s immune system,” said Dr. Michael Mina of Harvard University.

A two-dose vaccine regimen is recommended, first between 12 and 15 months and again between age 4 and 6. The first dose guarantees a 93 percent protection rate; the second gives 97 percent protection.

Almost four dozen measles cases have been reported as of March 7 in the U.S., prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a warning to health providers to be on alert for more. In all of last year, 58 cases were reported.

If this trend continues, the United States could lose its measles elimination status, defined as the absence of continuous disease transmission for at least a 12-month period. An immunization rate of at least 95 percent of an area’s population is required to stop the spread.

The COVID-19 pandemic severely interrupted vaccine schedules for infants. As a result, health officials recorded a 67% increase in measles cases and a 43% increase in measles deaths in 2022 compared with 2021, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Because measles is highly infectious, the failure of routine immunizations can be rapidly detected by the occurrence of outbreaks primarily affecting unvaccinated children.

Even one case is considered an outbreak because each measles patient infects an average of 12 to 18 people who lack immunity. 

Just being in a room two hours after an infected person has left can infect an unvaccinated person. 

In comparison, each Covid-19 patient infects about two other people, according to Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Measles is much, much more contagious than Covid or the flu,” Offit said.

The unvaccinated risk a 90 percent chance of contracting the virus if exposed. Truly terrible odds.

Because the United States has a high rate of vaccination, the most common way the measles virus makes its way to our shores is by us. Unvaccinated Americans returning from traveling abroad; in most cases to India, China and the United Kingdom

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