At first, the pink spots spreading across the infant’s stomach looked like a typical rash. But then another infant in the same day care class developed similar marks, followed by another.
“We were baffled,” said Sharon Patterson, director of Galloway Daycare Center at Jackson’s Galloway Methodist Church. “It took me a few minutes to say, ‘Well it could be measles.'”
It was. Within days, five children in the class had contracted it.
“I can’t tell you how surprised we were because you’d never expect it here,” Patterson said at a press conference in the Capitol this week.
Although the Mississippi Department of Health says it has not documented a case of measles in the state since 1992, Patterson says she reported the cases at Galloway directly to the day care’s licensing inspector at the department.
Galloway has a vaccine compliance rate of 100 percent. According to Patterson, this is because Mississippi has one of the strongest vaccine laws in the country, offering exemptions only if medically required. While the state doesn’t force children to get vaccinated, Mississippi’s law means that any child who wants to attend day care or school must be up to date on his vaccines.
For years, this has been a point of pride for Mississippi, which traditionally lags behind other states in almost all other health indices. Patterson was at the Capitol with Give Me a Shot, an initiative of the Mississippi Immunization Task Force, which promotes statewide vaccinations.
“It’s one of the things we do well,” said Dr. Mary Currier, the state health officer. “And I’d hate to see us go backwards and see a resurgence of measles or pertussis or another entirely preventable (disease).”
But some lawmakers and vaccine choice advocates are trying to change that. Two bills that have been introduced in this legislative session would widen the state’s medical exemption to include one for people who say their religious beliefs lead them to oppose vaccination. On Wednesday evening, House Judiciary (B) Chair Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, held a hearing on one of these bills, House Bill 1505, which he sponsored.
The bill is double referred to the House Judiciary B and Education committees. Gipson, who chairs Judiciary B, could take up the bill as early as Thursday morning.
“It’s the intersection of medical, legal and even fundamental rights that we have in this state,” Gipson said, introducing the first of more than a dozen speakers. “… It is an issue that has been before this Legislature now at least seven years. It’s an issue we keep being confronted with.”
While bills promoting vaccine choice, or the ability for parents to opt out of the state’s vaccine requirements because of personal convictions, have been introduced annually in Mississippi since 2013, linking these objections to religious beliefs is a relatively new concept in the state.
But it is not nationwide. In fact, 47 states currently let parents opt out of vaccinating their children because of their religious beliefs. The only exceptions are West Virginia, California and Mississippi. Many of the speakers at Wednesday’s hearing were quick to point out the irony that Mississippi, one of the most traditionally religious states in the country, did not offer a religious exemption.
“So ask yourself if Mississippi is one of only three states in the country that stands in defiance of God’s law,” said Del Bigtree, the producer of an anti-vaccine documentary who spoke at the hearing Wednesday.
The reason Mississippi is one of these three states likely dates back to a 1979 Mississippi State Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Stone. At the time, Mississippi had a religious exemptions law, but it was narrow, allowing exemptions only for those religions that “relied on spiritual means of healing” instead of modern medicine. The court’s decision, however, wiped it out completely.
“The right to practice religion freely does not include the liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death,” the court wrote in its opinion.
This law highlights what Currier called “herd immunity,” the concept that vaccines are only truly effective when vaccination rates are high in a community, ideally 95 percent. This is because vaccines don’t work 100 percent of the time, as is evidenced each year during flu season. Also, many people can’t be fully vaccinated. This includes people with chronic health conditions as well as infants, whose immune systems haven’t fully developed.
This was what happened with the measles outbreak at Galloway, according to Patterson. The infants who contracted measles hadn’t been vaccinated because the measles, mumps and rubella shot isn’t typically given until a child is 18 months old.
In this case, an older sibling of one of the sick infants had attended a church camp with an unvaccinated child, who had contracted measles. Patterson said she believes the infant was infected during a family night at the camp.
“There are always going to be health risks. That’s part of living in a community that we accept,” Patterson said. “But we have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable citizens in our community.”
Although discussion of Mississippi’s religious exemption on vaccines has largely remained dormant for four decades, the state has had recent success with other “religious freedom” legislation.
In 2016, Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law House Bill 1523. The law allows people to deny certain services to gays, lesbians and transgender Mississippians on the basis of religious beliefs. A federal court initially declared the law unconstitutional and discriminatory, but last summer the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision, ruling that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to challenge the law because it had not yet taken effect. Two weeks later, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling.
Gipson said that while the issues are different with vaccine choice, “it’s the same principle.”
“(House Bill) 1523 says a person can’t be forced by the government to violate his religious conviction, and that’s what this does, only in a patient context,” Gipson said.
Many of nearly one dozen speakers Wednesday said they had strong religious beliefs preventing them from vaccinating their children. Several spoke about how they couldn’t support vaccines because they had been developed by using fetal tissue.
“As a Christian and as a Catholic I cannot support this,” said Sherry Smith, who is also a nurse.
Several vaccines were developed using cells from two fetuses, both from pregnancies that were voluntarily terminated in Sweden in the 1960s. For many, this has created a moral gray area on the issue, since the vaccinated person is benefiting directly from an aborted fetus. The Catholic Church, however, is unequivocal in its support for vaccines.
“The risk to public health, if one chooses not to vaccinate, outweighs the legitimate concern about the origins of the vaccine. This is especially important for parents, who have a moral obligation to protect the life and health of their children and those around them,” writes the National Catholic Bioethics Center on its website. The Vatican released a similar statement in 2005.
For years, objections to vaccines typically centered on concerns about vaccine safety, a point of view covered under a personal convictions exemption for patients or their parents. But this has been a harder sell in many states. Currently only 20 offer a personal belief exemption compared with the 47 that offer a religious exemption. In Mississippi, 13 bills granting a personal convictions exemption to the vaccine requirement have been introduced since 2013. None has made it out of committee.
And in recent years, the standard bearers of the scientific community have fought to discredit reports linking vaccines to increased childhood diagnoses of autism, autoimmune disorders and allergies. Currently, every nationally recognized health organization, from the Centers for Disease Control to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization, has endorsed vaccines as a safe and necessary part of public health.
“Vaccines have been studied and the connection that has been talked about between vaccines (and these disorders) has been looked at over and over and over again, and people who are vaccinated are not more likely to have autism than people who are not vaccinated,” Currier said.
Still, almost all of the people who spoke Wednesday about their religious convictions against vaccines also had serious health concerns. Several parents spoke about witnessing first-hand the tragic consequences of vaccinating their children. Smith said her daughter had developed asthma after a routine round of vaccinations — and that her condition had worsened with each successive course. Judy Brasher, a retired nurse from Holcomb, said she watched her grandson slip into autism after receiving numerous vaccines in one day.
Gipson, too, has said his own interest in relaxing Mississippi’s vaccine rules originated from a “life-threatening vaccine reaction” that he had as a child. He mentioned it both in a Jan. 12 email to members of the House and Senate as well as at the hearing Wednesday.
“I almost died, first at 18 months, then at five years old,” Gipson said Wednesday.
Later, he said that for him and many other Mississippians hoping for a religious exemption there were still many “unknowns” about the safety of vaccines.
“I think that’s probably a major reason why parents are interested in this legislation,” Gipson said.
“I think it has a good shot, no pun intended,” Gipson said.