A legislative proposal to conform the state’s immunization requirements to federal guidelines is advancing over outspoken opposition from a contingent of Republican lawmakers and anti-vaccine parents.
The schedule of vaccines children must be given to attend school in Virginia hasn’t been updated since 2008 and, over the past decade, GOP lawmakers have blocked periodic efforts to include vaccines now recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, including for hepatitis A and meningitis.
Democrats, now in the majority, are moving swiftly to change that.
“We need to take this out of the political realm and put it into the scientific realm,” said Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, who is the lead patron the legislation, which would eliminate the need for future legislative intervention by removing the list of required vaccines from state code and instead defer to CDC guidelines.
Children covered by private insurance already generally receive the CDC’s full schedule, according to Hope, but families that rely on a free vaccine program administered by the Virginia Department of Health don’t because the state is only authorized to purchase immunizations approved by lawmakers.
The proposal is backed by virtually every professional medical group in the state, including the Virginia Academy of Family Physicians, the Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Medical Society of Virginia.
“Vaccines are a critical public health tool that have saved millions of lives and prevented the spread of countless diseases,” the organizations wrote in a letter of support signed by more than 100 individuals and healthcare groups.
“In Virginia, however, we see frequent reminders of the ongoing threat of vaccine-preventable diseases, including the growing rate of unvaccinated school-aged children, a severe flu season, measles outbreaks and incidences of meningitis on our college campuses.”
Anti-vaccine sentiment has been building for decades and the World Health Organization has recently listed it as a top threat to global health, according to The New York Times, which describes the movement as “a byproduct of an internet humming with rumor and misinformation; the backlash against Big Pharma; an infatuation with celebrities that gives special credence to the anti-immunization statements from actors like Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey and Alicia Silverstone, the rapper Kevin Gates and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. And now, the Trump administration’s anti-science rhetoric.”
Vaccine rates for Virginia school children have hovered around 80 percent over the past decade and compare well to other states, but the number of parents claiming religious exemptions allowed under state code has climbed from .66 percent of kindergarten students in 2007 to 1.22 percent in 2018, according to the Virginia Immunization Survey.
The legislation would still allow parents to claim religious or medical exemptions, but opponents worried conforming Virginia’s vaccine rules to the CDC’s recommendations would be the first step down a slippery slope.
“If this were to pass, children all over Virginia would become long-term test subjects of the pharmaceutical industry,” said Bonnie McLean, one of dozens of advocates who packed a Senate hearing room Thursday to oppose the legislation.
Republican lawmakers have argued the state shouldn’t give up its authority to sign off on the CDC’s recommendations.
“The reason we have moved very slowly is the reason there are so many people here in this room,” said Del. Robert Orrock, R-Caroline, during a hearing last month. “There is not universal acceptance of these vaccines. … I have seen changes within the medical field. Things we thought were good at one point, experience proves they’re not always in the best interest.”
The audience erupted with disapproval when Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, and a nurse practitioner, disagreed, stating flatly that the recommendations are neither arbitrary nor controversial and are “widely, widely shared amongst every society around medicine in general around the U.S.”
The House of Delegates approved the legislation last week on a party-line vote.
It’s now working its way through the Senate, where lawmakers from both parties have broken ranks to support and oppose the bill. Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, voted in committee Thursday against advancing the legislation while Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, voted with the majority in favor of it.
Dunnavant, a practicing OBGYN, called it critical to update the list to ensure low-income children have access to the full schedule of vaccines at state health departments, where about 14 percent of immunizations are administered.
“We need to keep Virginians on the cutting edge of making sure we have vaccines available to everybody in Virginia,” she said. “This is the 21st century and this is what we should be doing and we need to be protecting people from communicable diseases.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct a reference to Del. Dawn Adams’ medical credentials. She is a nurse practitioner.