CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Health Officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, Dr. Steven Eshenaur, says the passage of a bill allowing parents to choose whether they vaccinate their children against infectious diseases is very much a concern.

HB5105, or the vaccine bill, pertaining to the elimination of requirements to prevent and control diseases such as measles, mumps, tetanus, meningitis, and polio, and the compulsory immunization of school children, passed during the 60-day legislative session that just wrapped up at the state capitol.

Dr. Steven Eshenaur

Eshenaur told MetroNews that he testified against the bill in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, because, up until this point, West Virginia’s immunization regulations for students have proven to be both safe and effective at keeping those diseases out of schools.

“That system, those laws have kept our children safe,” Eshenaur said. “This bill weakens those laws.”

Eshenaur said the bill specifically allows for parents of children attending private and parochial schools in the state to sign a “religious exemption” form to prevent their child from getting vaccinations that were once mandatory for all students.

He said this still allows those children deemed exempt from getting immunizations to interact with other children and potentially expose them to such diseases, as well.

Eshenaur said this poses a potential risk for the entire population, because, in order to keep herd immunity in place and infectious diseases at bay, a 95% immunization rate across the state must be maintained. He said while that 95% immunization rate can still be maintained when taking into account of those who are legitimately medically-exempt from getting vaccines, this bill creates the risk of decreasing that rate by exempting those who may otherwise safely receive immunizations.

“When we drop below that threshold, then we will become like our neighbors in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, etc. that have now had measles outbreaks just this year,” he said.

Eshenaur said while it won’t happen immediately, the lower immunization rates this policy change could lead to could even open the door up to a relatively longtime dormant disease in the country– polio. He said West Virginia hasn’t had a case of polio since 1970.

Eshenaur said a polio case was, however, reported for the first time in many years in the U.S. in New York back in 2022 from someone who was unimmunized.

He said if it could break out there again, it could just as easily spark an outbreak here.

“Polio still exists in the world, it has never gone away, but we have been able to keep it from infecting our population, because we’ve had strong immunization programs to prevent polio from infecting our children,” he said.

He said as an emergency physician who has been all over the world treating these diseases in first-world countries, he saw the affects of what the lack of accessibility of vaccinations can do.

Eshenaur urges parents to continue to protect their children by getting them these safe and effective vaccines which doctors have been utilizing in West Virginia for many years.

“Our immunization laws are almost 90 years old, they have evolved overtime with new immunization that we have developed and we have now effectively eliminated as a scourge a number of childhood diseases that our grandparents and great-grandparents had to experience,” said Eshenaur.

Eshenaur is now submitting a letter to Governor Jim Justice urging him to veto HB5105 immediately. He said if Justice decides not to veto the bill, the legislation will “turn the clock back nearly 100 years in immunization protection.”