House opens bill to yet another exemption for vaccine requirements in schools

Earlier this week, delegates took a bill to eliminate vaccine requirements for public virtual schools and expanded it to also eliminate state vaccine requirements for West Virginia’s private and parochial schools.

Today, delegates voted to expand the bill again — amending it to allow parents citing religious beliefs to opt out of vaccination requirements for their children in any school in the state.

Todd Kirby

“For the people across our state who hold a religious belief that causes them to object to these vaccines, this is the fair way to do these people, to apply the U.S. constitution and the West Virginia constitution to them equally,” said Delegate Todd Kirby, R-Raleigh, the sponsor of the amendment who is running for circuit judge.

The amendment was adopted on a 58-37 vote after debate of about an hour on Friday afternoon. Next up for the bill would be a passage vote in the House.

House Bill 5105 as first introduced had only one operative line to change the section of state law pertaining to vaccination requirements in the education system: “Any child attending public, virtual schools shall be exempt from the requirements of this article.”

It has now been broadened twice.

Shortly after the latest move, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department distributed a written opinion by health officer Steven Eshenaur.

“If you are anti-vaccination, you are pro-disease. It’s as simple as that. If you are anti-vaccination, you want to weaken or eliminate laws that protect all of our children. There is no other way to see it,” Eshenaur wrote.

“Speak up, West Virginians, and tell our legislators not to join what I call ‘Politicians for Polio.’ It escapes sound reasoning why anyone would want to weaken childhood immunization laws.”

The prevailing side of the Friday argument on the House floor contended religious beliefs should prevail in vaccination decisions, with some delegates citing the use of fetal tissue in some vaccine development.

“We need to protect religious liberties in our state,” said Delegate Chris Pritt, R-Kanawha, who is running for state Senate. “Mountaineers are always free where it comes to religious liberties.”

Chris Pritt

Other delegates argued against the opening, saying society is safer from illness when there is broad protection against the spread of disease through vaccines.

Evan Hansen

“The reason why we have the law as we have it is that vaccines only provide the public health protection if most people are vaccinated,” said Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia.

“You’re not just protecting your child by deciding to have them vaccinated. You’re protecting your neighbors. You’re protecting your grandparents. You’re protecting other kids that are immunocompromised and not able to take a vaccine. So there’s a reason.”

As of now, the West Virginia Department of Education boasts that the state has one of the most effective school-entry vaccine preventable laws in the nation:  “The vaccination laws have proven to improve attendance rates for students and staff while ensuring children stay healthy, safe, and ready to learn.”

West Virginia students entering school for the first time must show proof of immunization against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella, and hepatitis B unless properly medically exempted.

Measles has seen a resurgence in the news recently with the situation of an elementary school in Florida experiencing measles cases among six students.

Brandon Steele

Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, cited a recent trip he took to Virginia to say he didn’t see with his own eyes children who were suffering from communicable disease.

“I’ll tell you what I didn’t see was hospitals full of kids with measles and mumps,” Steele said. “Or kids laying in the streets stricken with polio.”

Mike Hornby

Delegate Mike Hornby, R-Berkeley, talked about his early years in Zimbabwe as he argued against opening up vaccination exemptions even more.

“I grew up in a third world country, and I’ve seen polio first-hand,” he said. “With global travel the way it is and the recent outbreaks of measles in states and polio in other states, I don’t think this is the right time to not vaccinate our kids.”

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