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With COVID-19 vaccinations underway after nearly a year of living under the pandemic, health officials are again reminding residents how important routine immunizations are for public health.

West Virginia leads most other states in the nation in childhood immunizations, but as anti-vaccination sentiments seem to be growing, it’s integral to ensure parents are well informed when it comes to their child’s — and their own — health, said Dr. Sherri Young, health officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

“Immunizations aren’t only for a single person’s health and safety, but for all of our health they are public health,” Young said.

As COVID-19 vaccines have been made available to the public, they’ve been the center of a number of unfounded claims. People have said they don’t trust the vaccination, as they believe it was developed too quickly, and outlandish conspiracies — like the vaccine containing a tracking device or a microchip from the government — have run rampant on social media channels.

The two COVID-19 vaccines available, Moderna and Pfizer, are a new kind of vaccine. They are mRNA vaccines, which are vaccinations based on synthetic genetic material (messenger RNA) that, once injected, creates a virus antigen inside a person’s body that can help the immune system fight the virus.

While this technology is relatively new, the science behind mRNA vaccines has been in development for quite some time, Young said.

And further, the federal Food and Drug Administration has a very rigorous process for vaccines to be approved for general populations, even if they’re granted emergency authorization like both Moderna and Pfizer were.

“The agency doesn’t let just anything through. There is a proven, trusted process in place to ensure the safety of vaccines [like the COVID-19 one],” Young said.

And while it is the fastest vaccine to be developed and distributed to the public, it’s also one of the only ones that was created through collective action from leading scientists around the world to meet a collective threat.

Today, as more and more people are eligible for the vaccine and as others try to build trust with those who are unwilling to get it, the role immunizations play in a healthy community is integral.

In recent years, anti-vaccination movements have birthed new outbreaks of measles more than a decade after the virus was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000. West Virginia, because of its stringent immunization policies and the widespread compliance with them, has been spared from such incidents, Young said.

This is aided by the fact that, by and large, childhood immunizations are free for West Virginians. Local health departments also often apply for and receive grant funding to pay for flu vaccines and others to alleviate the burden on residents who may be at risk, but can’t pay.

Health care disparities can be widespread in West Virginia, where a disproportionate number of residents already live in poor to fair health, according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

Because of this, Young said it’s important to practice and take advantage of preventive medicine and care whenever possible.

“It’s easier, often, to stay healthy than to try and get back your health,” Young said. “... The more healthy our communities are, the less stress on our medical system.”

This point has been reinforced somewhat by the COVID-19 pandemic, as health officials worked diligently through the Fall and Winter getting residents flu vaccinations to avoid compounding flu infections with COVID-19 infections in hospitals and doctor offices.

COVID-19 has given way to some complications with immunizations, too, Young said.

With many school systems resorting to virtual learning for at least the first semester of the 2020-21 school year, childhood immunizations slumped somewhat as families were unable to access them through school clinics.

Nurses and others, including many health department staffers, have worked to try and increase those numbers, knowing the potential risks unvaccinated children can pose to public health.

“Immunizations are one of the easier things you can do to keep your children healthy, and to help others stay healthy as well,” Young said.