State Senate bills seek to allow religious, philosophical exemptions for vaccinating children



Alex Holloway



Four years ago, Mary Esther Elam's son, Cole, was battling for his life against cancer. 


The disease severely weakened his immune system, and Elam said the family relied on "herd immunity" while he was sick. 


According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, herd immunity, or community immunity, is the concept that a high enough percentage of a population being protected from a disease -- often through immunization via vaccines -- can reduce the spread of that disease and, in turn, protect members of the population who cannot be immunized.  


Herd immunity is a concept that's often raised in debates about the importance of vaccination. Elam, who is a nurse at Henderson-Ward Stewart Elementary School in Starkville, said her firsthand experience with its importance was eye-opening.  


"We were the family that was experiencing the, 'You can't come around my kind unless you've had all your shots,' thing," said Elam, whose son now is cancer-free. "Of course, we kept him away from anybody with sniffles and hardly got him out of the house while we were going through chemotherapy. We depended on that, and me as a nurse, I know how critical it can be for somebody with a compromised immune system. I was terrified that all it takes is a handshake and it could be bad. 


"Sometimes it's just a watch and wait kind of thing," she continued. "You know, somebody can say, 'Oh, by the way, somebody has the flu now,' and now I'm waiting seven days to be sure my kid doesn't die." 


Two bills in the state Senate -- SB 2255 and SB 2398 -- are seeking to allow parents to get exemptions from the state's vaccination requirements to attend Mississippi schools. The bills look to allow the exemptions for philosophical or religious reasons. Currently medical exemptions are the only ones legally allowed. 


Senators Joey Fillingane (R-Sumrall) and Angela Burks Hill (R-Picayune) introduced the respective bills. 


Mississippi requires five shots for children to enroll at a public school system: DTaP for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine; a chicken pox vaccine; a polio vaccine; and a hepatitis B vaccine. A booster for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, is required before going to the seventh grade. 


Other vaccines are suggested but not mandatory. 




Preventing outbreaks 


Thomas Dobbs, a health officer with the Mississippi Department of Health, said state law currently only allows medical exemptions from vaccinations, as recommended by Mississippi licensed physicians.  


As such, Mississippi boasts the highest vaccination rate in the country, Dobbs said, with about 99.4 percent of school-age children vaccinated. 


Dobbs said that high vaccination rate is important for protecting those who cannot be vaccinated and is like "clearing the debris to prevent wildfires" in preventing outbreaks of certain diseases.  


He pointed to Washington, which is currently under a declared health emergency from a measles outbreak that has, thus far, led to 41 confirmed cases, according to the Washington State Department of Health. 


"Measles is crazy contagious," Dobbs said. "Each case can cause 18 new cases in your un-immunized population. To have what we call population immunity for measles, you need to have over 95-percent immunity. 


"If you look at what happened with Washington, they had an exemption rate of about seven percent, and that was enough to allow outbreaks to occur," he added. 


Both Elam and Katie Elliot, a nurse at Caledonia middle and high schools, said medical exemptions are very rare. 


Elliot said elementary students could be particularly at risk for getting sick if they haven't yet learned how to prevent spreading germs to each other. 


"They touch each other's hands and face, they sneeze and don't cover their mouths," Elliot said. "All those kinds of things increase the chances of any spread of disease. The vaccines eliminate at least those deadly childhood diseases." 


Elam said school nurses sometimes face requests for vaccination exemptions. 


"It probably comes to us first, because people move," she said. "Say, for example, they move from Florida, which has religious exemptions, and we send home a note about it. I have had parents call and chew me out about it." 




Legislative reaction 


District 37 Rep. Gary Chism (R-Columbus) said it's not uncommon to see bills introduced each year in an effort to expand vaccination exemptions. He said they've historically struggled to gain traction, and he doesn't see SB 2255 or 2398 faring better. 


Chism said he can understand families' concerns about vaccines. However, he said the law should weigh the state's health as a whole. 


"There's a part of me that says parents should be able to decide what goes into their children," Chism said. "If there's a religious component to that, that ought to be considered. But when you weigh that against harming all the other children who are in the classroom, it falls by the wayside." 


District 37 Rep. Cheikh Taylor (D-Starkville) said he's not opposed to vaccines and knows they're "critical" for overall public health. However, he acknowledged he has concerns about how early vaccines are administered to children - especially a schedule that often has young children receiving several shots at once.  


He also said he's concerned the vaccination schedule may lead to higher rates of autism, something some controversial and much-debated medical studies have claimed dating back to the 1990s. 


"I don't recall, when I was in K-12, an autistic student in my classroom, or in the school at the time," Taylor said. "If there was, it was probably one or two. But now, I believe the number is somewhere around 1-in-6 or 1-in-7." 


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1-in-59 children had been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder as of 2014, the last available data year. While the prevalence is lower than Taylor's claim, it is higher than the 1-in-150 reported in 2000. 


Taylor said some things, such as environmental pollutants, may contribute to the increase. However, he said he thinks it is worth considering revising the vaccination schedule, to reduce the number of shots a child gets at once, and see if it has an impact. 


He also questioned if people who are seeking religious exemptions are truly opposed for faith-based reasons or are seeking any available avenue to avoid vaccinating their children. 


Taylor said he doesn't necessarily oppose the exemption bills. However, he said he'd like to see some provisions added to allow delays in vaccinations, rather than simply exemptions, before voting "yes." 




Diseases making comebacks 


Dobbs said MDH is generally amendable to adjusting when children receive their vaccines, as long as they're vaccinated by the time they start school. 


However, he said there's no proven link between vaccines and autism. 


"That concern was raised by fraudulent science of the 1990s and has been thoroughly debunked since then," he said. "Extensive studies have shown that vaccines don't cause autism." 


District 43 Rep. Rob Roberson (R-Starkville) said he would be "nervous" about changing the state's vaccination laws, but added he would be open to listening to the findings of a committee tasked to research the matter. 


District 16 Sen. Angela Turner-Ford (D-West Point) said she has been fully opposed to vaccine exemption bills in the past. However, she said with the right provisions, she may consider supporting one. 


Dobbs said any vaccination exemptions can allow dangerous diseases to make preventable comebacks. Measles, he said, is just one example. 


"Some people think that maybe measles isn't dangerous," Dobbs said. "It doesn't kill everybody, but it's not a benign disease. In the early 80s, we thought we had it eradicated, but with low vaccination rates, it's coming back." 





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