A crowd of red-wearing protesters attending a meeting of the General Assembly’s Joint Commission on Health Care in November to oppose any changes to the state’s regulations on otherwise mandatory immunization exemptions, particularly the suggestion of removing religious reasons as a valid reason not to immunize a child.

A House Health, Welfare and Institutions subcommittee on Tuesday threw out a bill that would have mandated all sixth-graders in Virginia be vaccinated against diseases like bacterial meningitis.

The bill was backed by the Virginia Department of Health and was sponsored by Del. Patrick A. Hope, D-Arlington. It would have required that Virginia students receive a vaccine to protect against the bacteria that causes meningococcal diseases like meningitis.

“Meningococcal disease is an acute, potentially severe illness, and the leading cause of bacterial meningitis and sepsis in the United States,” Hope said. “It is rare, but it is very serious.”

He added that for every 100 people infected with a meningococcal disease, 10 to 15 people will die even if they receive the recommended treatment.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which recommends vaccination for preteens and teens — the most severe illnesses the bacteria cause include infections in the fluid surrounding the brain and spine.

The Medical Society of Virginia, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Virginia Association of School Nurses spoke in favor of the bill, along with the Department of Health.

“School immunization requirements are a key and important strategy of improving these rates and protecting our children,” Laurie Forlano, the state epidemiologist, told the committee.

The percentage of Virginia adolescents who already receive the vaccine was 66.8 percent in 2015, Hope said, which is below the national average of 81.3 percent.

“Of the 24 states that are above the national average for immunizations, only three of those states do not have a mandate,” Forlano said. “On the other side of the coin, of the 26 states below the national average, 20 of those states do not have a school immunization requirement.”

But opponents of the bill came out in force. Representatives with the National Vaccine Information Center, Virginians for Health Freedom and Virginians for Medical Freedom spoke against the bill during the hearing Tuesday.

Opponents argued that cases of meningococcal disease are so rare that they do not require a mandate.

Steve Martin with the National Vaccine Information Center, argued that Wisconsin, Colorado and New Hampshire do not have mandates, yet still have vaccination rates above the national average.

Vicky Pebsworth, volunteer director of research and patient safety with the group, told the subcommittee that invasive meningococcal disease has naturally declined after peaking in the 1990s.

“The disease is not easily transmitted in schools or other public settings,” Pebsworth said.

Dr. Sam Bartle, president of the Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, spoke of the danger the meningococcus bacteria poses to adolescents. Those who survive the disease often have lifelong problems ranging from neurological issues to loss of limbs.

“There’s sort of dark humor among some physicians who have seen kids with meningococcus,” he told the committee. “They call it the Ebola (virus) of the developed world. It’s very thorough, very quick and very deadly.”


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