I would like to thank the West Virginia Legislature for continuing to protect the children of our state with immunizations. Every year there is an effort to get the West Virginia Legislature to permit parents to use religious and/or philosophical exemptions to school requirements for vaccines. Once again, this did not get out of committee in the Legislature. As a pediatrician, I can only express deep gratitude.
As a public health effort, vaccines are the greatest achievement ever, but especially in the 20th century. In the early 1900s, the biggest killer of children was infection. Vaccines have increased the lifespans of people by 30 years. Now the biggest killer of children is accidents. Smallpox has been eradicated from the whole world, and polio, the great crippler, has almost been eradicated. It is now only in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
Many parents don't trust vaccines, but all the vaccines are reviewed by expert committees by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC. Some say that the vaccines aren't tested enough. This simply is not true. The HPV vaccine was tested on 30,000 women, the pneumococcal vaccine was tested on 40,000 children, and the rotavirus vaccine was tested on 70,000 children before licensure.
Some think that vaccines cause autism, but the original article claiming a link between vaccines and autism was retracted years later. Multiple well-designed studies done during the previous decade to find a link between vaccines and autism have found no such association and a federal court in the United States ruled that there was enough scientific evidence to disprove the link between vaccines and autism.
One way that vaccines prevent infection is through what is called herd immunity. Herd immunity means that a large enough percentage of the population is immune which prevents the smaller percentage that is not immunized from getting the deadly infections. Herd immunity only works when a large percentage of the children get the vaccines. For example, at least 94 percent of the population needs to receive the pertussis or whooping cough shot to protect those who are unimmunized. If that percentage gets lower, we will see our rate of vaccine-preventable disease increase. We would go back to the days of polio and measles. This has been experienced time and time again.
Immunization programs have become victim of their own success. In the absence of rampant epidemics of vaccine preventable diseases, the general public does not fully understand or appreciate the value of these programs. An outbreak often restores that faith. In summer 2010, California, who has vaccine exemptions, had an epidemic of whooping cough causing 1,500 people to get sick and six infant deaths. This is their worst epidemic since 1958. Recently there have been outbreaks of measles in 15 states that allow exemptions. A major epidemic swept England and Wales in the 1980s when the pertussis vaccine rate dropped to 30 percent in the wake of vaccine reaction controversy.
In public health, our responsibility is to protect each of us from the rest of us. As members of society, we have to look out for each other. I look at the groups who want exemptions to be selfish. They want to exempt their children, and can be complacent about it, since, because of the vaccines, we do not have much of the disease. They are basically depending on everyone else to keep their kids from getting sick. I think it is deplorable in this modern day in our wealthy country to have children die of a disease that can easily be prevented. I want to congratulate the West Virginia Legislature for continuing to protect our children.
Mary S. Boyd, MD
president, West Virginia Chapter,
American Academy of Pediatrics
Medical Director, Randolph Elkins Health Department