Although the majority of West Virginia’s school-aged children are immunized against communicable diseases, many of the state’s infants remain at risk.
That is the message physicians participating in Infant Immunization Week want to get across. They say although kids entering school must be up-to-date on their shots, infants and toddlers must receive vaccinations on time to prevent contracting potentially deadly illnesses such as pertussis or mumps.
“The West Virginia Bureau for Public Health feels strongly we use this week, the 20th anniversary of Infant Immunization Week, to remind all citizens of West Virginia and our immunization health care providers that timely, age-appropriate vaccinations protect children,” said Dr. Loretta Haddy, speaking on behalf of State Health Officer Dr. Letitia Tierney.
Haddy said West Virginia has among the highest number of vaccinated school-aged children across the country, but the second-lowest rate of vaccinated children under the age of 2. Although those children do eventually receive their immunizations, delaying the shots isn’t a good course of action, she said.
“This gap leaves this group susceptible to diseases such as measles and whooping cough, diseases that can easily be prevented with a vaccine,” Haddy said. “So while we have far too many infants and toddlers remaining susceptible to vaccine-preventable disease, the vast majority of children get vaccinated by the time they enter school, which means they’re protected at that point. But waiting until school isn’t the best means for vaccination.”
Jenny Murray of Charleston knows first-hand how important vaccines can be to an infant’s health. Her daughter contracted pertussis when she was a month old. She spent another month in the hospital suffering from respiratory distress and rapid heart rate.
“I’ll be honest, she really should have died,” Murray said. “She was very, very sick.”
Murray’s daughter contracted pertussis from a young adult who said she had a cold. At the time, Murray’s daughter was too young to receive any immunizations, so her immune system was especially vulnerable. Murray said her experience not only highlights the importance of infant immunizations, but also adult boosters.
“I think it’s important not only for parents but people in general to keep track of their immunization records,” she said, later adding, “We all should carry a personal responsibility to keep track of our immunization shots as well as those of our children.”
However, a small but growing faction of parents disagree with vaccinations, often citing links to Autism Spectrum Disorder or religious beliefs. West Virginia and Mississippi are the only two states in the country that do not allow religious exemptions for vaccines, but in West Virginia, medical exemptions are accepted. All children entering school or licensed child care facilities must be immunized and provide proof before enrollment. We the Parents West Virginia is one group that has lobbied the Legislature to pass a religious exemption. WTP calls the exemption a “basic parental right.” A message to We the Parents on Monday went unanswered.
Despite the anti-vaccination sentiment, Dr. Raheel Khan, a Charleston pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at West Virginia University, said vaccines are safe and side effects are minimal. Children are more likely to die from vaccine-preventable diseases than the vaccines themselves, he said.
“There are a lot of questions about the safety of these vaccines,” Khan said. “Let me make it very clear, no one is claiming vaccines are 100 percent safe. Nothing is ever 100 percent safe. Every single thing has some side effects.”
Recently, celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy have taken to the Internet to warn parents on the dangers of vaccines. She has a son with autism, and blames vaccinations for her son’s condition. But Khan warned parents to be aware of where they’re getting their information and to only trust a handful of websites.
“I think the advent of the information super highway and Internet, a lot of people can put anything on the Internet and sometimes people perceive information they read on the Internet as the right information,” he said. “But the best and most reliable source regarding immunization is the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the American Academy of Pediatrics.”
Another factor that contributes to the misinformation about vaccines, he said, is that current generations are unaware of the devastating effects diseases such as pertussis or polio have had on small children in the past.
“Once you eradicate these diseases, the general public and common person doesn’t have as much appreciation of the impact these diseases used to have on the population,” Khan said. “That’s why sometimes we see anti-vaccination sentiment -- because people don’t see the diseases. The only thing they see is the minor side-effect of the vaccine.”
As the mother of a child who suffered a vaccine-preventable disease, Murray said the misinformation makes her angry, and she believes parents should educate themselves on the positives of vaccinations before making a decision for their children.
It angers me that people will believe a celebrity who just talks about things without giving research,” Murray said. “It’s an opinion, and people will believe an opinion. I urge parents to do their own research, go to the CDC website. What do they say about immunizations? I think I would rather immunize my child than see them die of a vaccine-preventable disease. Any parent, I hope, would want that.”
Contact writer Whitney Burdette at 304-348-7939 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at www.Twitter.com/wburdette_DM.