CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A partisan squabble broke out Wednesday in the West Virginia House Health Committee over whether state permission should be required to get an exemption from mandatory vaccinations.
On the committee’s agenda had been a fairly mundane bill concerning which government agencies grant medical exemptions.
However, the committee spent more than two hours discussing whether a private physician alone, with no input from state officials, should be able to grant exemptions.
In West Virginia, about 60 families per year request that their child be exempt from state-mandated vaccinations. They need to get a note from a doctor and then present that note to a local board of health to get an exemption. If denied, they can appeal to the state board of health and the courts.
Republican Del. Patrick Lane led a group of mostly GOP delegates who wanted the doctor’s note alone to suffice for an exemption. Multiple amendments and motions were filed, all of which failed on a 12-12 vote. Amendments fail on a tie vote under House rules.
West Virginia law requires that children are vaccinated for certain diseases such as polio, measles and whooping cough before they can attend school.
At one point the debate appeared to get personal.
Democratic Del. Margaret Staggers, a doctor, said that vaccines fall under the specialty of public health and a general practitioner was not necessarily equipped to make decisions about the effect on the public at large.
“It’s not just Patrick Lane’s child,” Staggers said, addressing Lane. “It’s Patrick Lane’s child living in the community.”
Staggers also suggested that Lane makes enough money that he could home-school his children if he was so against vaccinations.
Lane responded that his children are vaccinated, but that his family was “nobody’s damn business in this committee.”
Dr. Rahul Gupta, who runs the Kanawha County health department, said that because vaccinations have been so successful in this country, people forget how crucial they are. Gupta said that when he was in medical school in India he saw children die of rabies and polio — preventable diseases — because of a lack of widespread vaccinations.
“If you have an unbiased public health officer who’s looking out for the health of the entire community that’s different than a private doctor,” Gupta said. “We want to make sure that because immunization is such an important component of all of our lives that that is sacrosanct.”
Gupta said that the public health officials always look at testing and data to determine whether or not to grant an exemption.
“If the data says that the child is allergic, there’s not a physician in this country that will say go ahead and do the shot,” Gupta said.
Republican Del. Daryle Cowles was skeptical that the judgment of a family pediatrician should have to be double-checked by a local public health official.
Cowles said that a family doctor and “a mother’s intuition” should be enough to keep a child from being vaccinated and that the state should not play a role.