Not too long ago, measles outbreaks were a thing of the past. Yet once more this winter, measles outbreaks are spreading on both coasts.
Measles is highly contagious. Infants, too young to receive vaccinations, have become prisoners in their own homes as parents fear leaving the house for threat of infection.
The culprits have been identified: anti-vaccine “hotspots,” areas with vaccination rates significantly below the level required to prevent and contain outbreak. There is one policy that provides particularly fertile ground for these outbreaks: personal belief exemptions. Not surprisingly, the two states currently experiencing the most significant measles outbreak, Washington and Oregon, allow parents significant leeway when it comes to vaccinations.
Unfortunately, this is not a phenomenon confined to the United States. Early this year, the World Health Organization named “vaccine hesitancy” to their list of top 10 global threats.
West Virginia, however, has thankfully not seen a measles outbreak, and our strong public health policies should receive due credit. In fact, West Virginia is leading the nation in an important public health measure: school-age vaccination rates. We do so because we have the nation’s strictest vaccination requirements for children in school. This is something to be proud of because we are all better off for it. Our approach has been so effective that other states are following our example.
Unfortunately, this week Senate Bill 454 was introduced in the Legislature seeking to undo our progress.
We want to be clear. The legislation is dangerous, it runs counter to scientific consensus and it puts all of us, particularly the most vulnerable, at risk.
We are writing this as researchers, dedicated to improving the health of this state, who have published in the leading medical, public health, child development and health policy journals, with the training to assess other researchers’ work.
1. Vaccines are safe. Serious adverse events from vaccines occur at rates lower than one in a million (the chance of getting hit by lighting is one in 700,000). The only side effects commonly seen with vaccines are minor, temporary ailments like a sore arm or a low fever.
2. Vaccines are effective. In the case of the measles vaccine, one dose of the vaccine is 93 percent effective. A booster shot increases effectiveness to 97 percent. Most other vaccines show similar rates of protections.
3. All West Virginians benefit from vaccines — even if they do not have a child. Vaccines don’t just keep children alive and well — they also keep costs down for everyone. A recent minor (just 51 cases) measles outbreak in Minnesota cost that state in excess of $1 million. An earlier outbreak in New York City cost local government $400,000 and more than 10,000 work hours. These are just the direct costs. A recent study showed that routine childhood immunization of US children born in 2009 alone will prevent 42,000 early deaths and 20 million cases of disease. That kind of health impact translates to savings of $13.5 billion in direct costs and $68.8 billion in total societal costs.
Yet, vaccines only work if the vast majority of individuals are vaccinated. School vaccination requirements go a long way toward making that happen.
The need to maintain and strengthen protections for our children is urgent and critical. Though the measles outbreaks are making national headlines right now, rates of whooping cough and influenza — both preventable through vaccines — are also on the rise.
It is time for the public and our state leadership to defeat dangerous policies and to stand up to deliberately misleading voices in the state that spread conspiracy theories, irresponsibly scare parents and cause great damage to the future of our West Virginia’s health and budget. Legislation such as SB 454 is a threat to the public’s health and purse.
Vaccines are safe and effective. Vaccines save lives.
The debate is settled.