Public Health

Veto upholds West Virginia’s strong vaccine requirements

Georgia Garvey , Contributing News Writer

What’s the news: After the urging of the AMA, the West Virginia Medical Association and a broad coalition of other medical societies and health care trade groups, Gov. Jim Justice last month vetoed a bill that would have exempted students in private, parochial and virtual schools from vaccine requirements.

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The West Virigina State Medical Association and nearly three dozen other organizations representing family physicians, pediatricians, emergency physicians, nurses, hospitals, teachers and more took out a full-page ad in the Charleston Gazette-Mail thanking the governor for his veto, calling the state’s school vaccine requirements “effective, lifesaving” policies.

In his veto message, Justice cited the “constant, strong opposition to this legislation from [the] medical community” that warned of “irreparable harm by crippling childhood immunity to diseases such as mumps and measles.” The governor added that he was compelled to “follow the guidance of our medical experts on this subject.”

Why it’s important: Due to West Virginia’s historically strong immunization laws, the state enjoys some of the highest immunization rates in the country and low rates of vaccine-preventable diseases, AMA Executive Vice President and CEO James L. Madara, MD, wrote in a letter to Justice urging the veto (PDF).

“Unfortunately, the immense success of immunization programs in the United States has lulled some into complacency with regard to vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, meningitis, polio and diphtheria,” Dr. Madara wrote. “For previous successes to be maintained, we must recognize that these diseases still exist and can still debilitate and kill.”

West Virginia is one of just five states that does not allow religious or philosophical exemptions from school vaccine requirements.

Before widespread measles vaccination in the 1980s, an estimated 2.6 million people died of the disease each year. As vaccination rates rose across the nation, and 11 years after the American Academy of Pediatrics first recommended a second dose of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine for children, measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000. Elimination means the disease has not been continuously transmitted for at least 12 months, though outbreaks may occur. 

But an alarming resurgence of measles threatens the measles elimination status in the U.S. As of April 25, this year had seen seven outbreaks and nearly 130 cases reported in 20 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 70 of those cases, hospitalization was required. Last year, there were four reported outbreaks, which the CDC defines as a cluster of three or more cases.

In April, West Virginia reported its first case of measles since 2009.

Learn more: In 2023, the MMR immunization rate dropped to 93.1% among kindergarteners nationally, a rate the CDC says leaves about 250,000 kindergarteners at risk of infection. Amid this year’s outbreaks, the agency has issued updated guidance for physicians and other health professionals on the clinical features of measles, diagnostic testing, treatment, complications, post-exposure prophylaxis and more.

Explore further with the AMA on what physicians need to know with measles cases on the rise.