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Tollison, other senators kill plan to widen vaccine exemptions

By JEFF AMY

Associated Press

JACKSON — Mississippi senators have killed a proposal to expand medical exemptions to some of the strictest childhood vaccination requirements in the nation.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said he was persuaded by arguments from physicians and state health officials who oppose House Bill 938. Tollison’s committee didn’t consider the bill Tuesday, so it died under a deadline for committee action.

The proposal would have removed the requirement that the state Health Department approve any medical exemption granted by any in-state or out-of-state physician. Without Health Department approval, children who lack some of the required vaccinations can’t enroll in public or private school.

“Mississippi has a very good system in place and we are happy it remains unchanged,” Dr. Mary Currier, the state health officer, said in a statement. “We will continue to work to see that medical exemptions for children are granted when requested, while also ensuring that all Mississippi children are protected against vaccine preventable diseases.”

Mississippi, West Virginia and California are the only states that don’t allow religious or philosophical exemptions, and California only removed its exemption in 2015 after more than 100 people who had been to Disneyland contracted measles in late 2014.

“We do have medical exemptions in Mississippi,” Tollison said Tuesday. “We certainly need to be courteous to people making these requests and helpful to doctors going through this process.”

MaryJo Perry of Pelahatchie, co-director of Mississippi Parents for Vaccine Rights, said her group has sought a legal change because parents find the Health Department heavy-handed. She said leaders’ priority is to maintain Mississippi’s ranking as the nation’s leader in vaccination coverage rates.

Perry said she doubts the situation would fundamentally change without legislation, saying the state needs to “put the interests of the individual child above the Health Department’s agenda to be first in the nation.”

The House had approved the bill 65-54 March 2. Perry said she thought her members’ lobbying efforts hadn’t been as strong in the Senate.

“Our hope is between now and next year, they’ll develop a better relationship with their senators,” Perry said Tuesday.

Currier has said that the Health Department approved 155 requests for medical exemptions for the current school year. She said only one application was denied, and that was because a physician only filled out part of an application.

Parents in Perry’s group dispute those claims. Perry said her request on behalf of her son was denied three times in earlier years, and said parents have told her the Health Department is blocking exemptions from out-of-state physicians. Currier said the Health Department’s policy is “to work with” out-of-state physicians.