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Bill 938 puts children at risk

Mississippi faces many public health struggles, but there is one area in which we have consistently excelled: vaccination rates.

Last year, 99.2 percent of our kindergarteners were fully vaccinated. Only 155 students entered school without all five of their required shots, which protect against nine diseases: Diphtheria, Tetanus and Pertussis (DTaP), Polio, Hepatitis B, Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) and Varicella (chickenpox).

In some cases, children with medical conditions (such as cancer) that compromise their immune system cannot receive immunizations and have to rely on those around them for protection from vaccine-preventable diseases. In Mississippi, the State Department of Health does an excellent job of overseeing these medical exemptions and monitoring school environments for potential outbreaks. Last year, MSDH granted all but one medical exemption requested by pediatricians, family practitioners or internists licensed to practice in Mississippi.

In 2014, there were 32,971 “whooping cough” cases reported in the U.S., but only 68 cases in Mississippi. But the Mississippi House of Representatives just passed a bill that will likely result in a higher number of cases in the near future. House Bill 938, which is now being examined by the Senate, removes medical exemption granting authority from the Department of Health and places this burden with each individual school. It also would allow exemption requests to come from physicians outside of Mississippi.

If the Senate passes this bill, the Department of Health would no longer know which children are unprotected and could not intervene if a child needed to be removed from a school environment to prevent or control an outbreak. Instead, school administrators could receive exemption requests from physicians all over the country and be responsible for verifying the physicians’ credentials and the validity of each request. The schools would receive this burden with no training or resources for guidance.

We all know Mississippi’s public schools are already strained. Teachers and administrators are overworked, underpaid and underappreciated for the care they provide our children. Does the Legislature really think that public school administrators are more equipped to handle immunization exemptions (not to mention the potential outbreaks of deadly diseases they could cause) than our state epidemiologist and nationally recognized health officer?

Passing this bill would open the door for medically unsound exemptions that put all of our children’s lives at risk. These bacteria and viruses are still alive and well and are patiently waiting for the population’s immunity to weaken so they can attack. This is not a philosophical or political issue. This is a health and safety issue. When the percentage of children vaccinated falls below the critical threshold for a disease, just one case can cause an outbreak in a community.

We witnessed this just two years ago when a measles outbreak in California prompted their state assembly to pass immunization legislation modeled after Mississippi. Immunizations are a group effort. 

Our House of Representatives chose to make vaccinations a political issue regarding individual rights, but the physicians who care for Mississippi are proclaiming the medical fact that when significant numbers of unvaccinated children are allowed to go to school with vaccinated children, they are all at risk. Don’t play political games with the lives of our children.  Vaccines are safe. They save lives.

Please call your senator and ask them to oppose HB 938. It’s not easy being a child in Mississippi. Let’s not make it even harder.

Dr. Daniel Edney is a Vicksburg physician specializing in internal medicine and president of the Mississippi State Medical Association.