A lawmaker reviews a presentation from state health officials during an October meeting of the Joint Committee on Children and Families. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislature

While West Virginia faces numerous challenges to improving health, the childhood vaccination rate has been a state point of pride. Since the 2017 school year, the state’s kindergartners have consistently had higher vaccination rates than the national average. 

Health experts say that’s a product of laws. West Virginia is one of only five states which does not allow public and private schools students to forgo vaccination for religious or philosophical reasons.

Shannon McBee, the state’s epidemiologist, told West Virginia lawmakers that the law is a big reason why West Virginia, unlike other regions, hasn’t experienced a measles outbreak in recent history.

“West Virginia is considered to have an exemplary immunization model,” she said during a presentation on Tuesday to the Joint Committee on Children and Families during legislative interim meetings.

But state lawmakers at the meeting didn’t celebrate the public health success. Instead, delegates and state senators on the committee expressed skepticism about West Virginia’s childhood vaccine laws.

Legislators’ criticisms included claims that the government was restricting people’s religious freedoms and that the current laws were keeping people from moving to West Virginia. They repeatedly questioned Dr. Joseph Evans, a pediatrician and Marshall University professor, about whether the medical system and laws were serving state residents well.

“You do make it sound like having this vaccination just provides a protection,” Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said to Evans. “Have you not ever heard of people getting an illness even though they were vaccinated against it?”

Rucker repeatedly criticized vaccine mandates, pointing to neighboring states with looser vaccine laws and expressing concerns that pharmaceutical companies could be lobbying for vaccine mandates.

At one point in the meeting, Rucker wondered whether West Virginia’s poor health outcomes were related to its high childhood vaccination rate. In an interview afterwards, she said she supports a vaccine law with more exemptions.

“I don’t think it’s going to make a huge difference,” Rucker said. “But it certainly can’t hurt.”

Dr. Matthew Christiansen, the state health officer, said in an interview that there was no evidence that West Virginia’s major health problems were caused by its high childhood immunization rates. 

He predicted that if lawmakers weakened vaccine requirements, the state could have outbreaks of diseases like mumps and rubella.

“I would expect to see more hospitalizations,” Christiansen said. “I would expect to see more kids that are covered by our public insurance agencies having diseases that have to be borne by the taxpayer dollar.”

It isn’t the first time state lawmakers have tried to loosen childhood vaccination laws. During the legislative session earlier this year, they proposed over a dozen different bills to do just that. 

In 2021, lawmakers created a religious exemption to COVID-19 vaccine mandates by private employers. 

And during this week’s meeting, multiple state senators indicated they were ready to take action when they convene early next year for the regular legislative session. 

Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, asked a lawyer from the state Department of Health and Human Resources how delegates and senators could change an administrative rule related to medical exemptions for immunizations. 

Sen. Michael Azinger, R-Wood, went further. After listening to an hour of health experts explaining how West Virginia’s vaccine laws are keeping people healthy, Azinger said all the presentations were filled with arrogance.

“This is just not acceptable,” he said of the current lack of vaccine exemptions in West Virginia law. “This needs to be fixed.”

Allen Siegler is the public health reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He can be reached at (681) 317-7571.