Vaccinations required for schoolchildren are a hot topic in both parenting and public health circles, with the two often at odds. In West Virginia, the battle lines are being drawn again following the Jan. 11 introduction of Senate Bill 50, which allows parents to submit a signed letter to the school district if they want to opt out of vaccinating their children on religious or philosophical grounds.
Currently, West Virginia is one of two states that doesn't allow these types of exemptions; the other is Mississippi, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. West Virginia and all other states allow physician-approved medical exemptions, such as if a child has an allergy to a vaccine ingredient or has a compromised immune system.
The current law protects schoolchildren, said Howard Gamble, Ohio County Health Department administrator. Allowing more exemptions would put more of them at risk for catching and spreading serious diseases such as pertussis and measles.
"Unvaccinated children are at greater risk of catching and spreading vaccine-preventable diseases and put the community or school at risk by spreading the disease," Gamble said.
The bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, said parents should be the ones to decide whether or not their children receive vaccinations.
"I have had people come to me now for several years that are just concerned about the vaccinations. ... I think the parents should make that decision; they have a constitutional right to decide what's best for their kids," Boley said.
Sen. David C. Nohe, R-Wood, also sponsors the bill; he did not return an email and phone call seeking comment.
Patti Finn, a New York attorney and West Virginia University graduate who specializes in vaccine exemption laws, said the West Virginia law violates both the First and Ninth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
She is consulting with a group of West Virginia parents that has organized a movement to push for the bill's passage. Called We the Parents, it has a website and a page on Facebook, and has received more than 500 signatures to its online petition in support of the bill.
"I'm wanting this bill to pass so people have a choice. (The current law) is unconstitutional. We should have a choice like everybody else," said Tiffany Boles, a Wheeling mother of two and a We the Parents member.
"Under the Ninth Amendment, people have a right to privacy and freedom over their body," Finn said. "Not allowing a conscientious objection or philosophical objection runs afoul of the Ninth Amendment."
Some parents don't trust that vaccines are safe or effective. Their children may have had adverse reactions after being vaccinated, for example. Others don't want to take that chance, feeling their children have less risk of contracting a dangerous illness than being harmed by the vaccine.
In addition to the Ninth Amendment issue, prohibiting a religious exemption to the vaccine requirements violates the First Amendment's freedom of religion, Finn said. The We the Parents website states the current law "blatantly discriminates" against residents whose religious beliefs prohibit them from receiving immunizations, for example, because of the use of certain chemicals or biological ingredients in the vaccines.
Under the current law, unvaccinated children are not permitted to attend either public or private school, so many of these children are homeschooled.
The American Academy of Pediatrics supports the immunization of schoolchildren. In a policy statement that was reaffirmed in 2009, it states: "Because unimmunized children do pose a risk to other children who lack immunity to vaccine-preventable infections, the AAP also supports immunization requirements for school entry."
The bill has been sent to the education committee and, if approved, will then go to the judiciary committee for approval before being voted on by the full Senate.