In first weeks of availability, parents request nearly 700 vaccine exemptions for kids

Published 5:57 pm Thursday, August 24, 2023

By Julia James | Mississippi Today

Parents requested nearly 680 religious vaccine exemptions in the first weeks they were available in Mississippi, something health department officials said has slowed in recent weeks.

In April, a federal judge ruled that parents can opt out of vaccinating their children for school on account of religious beliefs. U.S. District Judge Halil Sul Ozerden of the Southern District of Mississippi issued a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit, filed last year by parents who said the vaccination requirement violated their First Amendment rights.

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Under the newly created process, which went into effect July 17, parents must complete the form on the Mississippi Department of Health’s website and make an appointment with their county health department to submit it. At the appointment, parents are shown an educational video about vaccination and are informed that if an outbreak occurs, their child will not be able to attend school or day care until it is resolved. The form is then processed by the health department.

Health department officials said that parents can apply for a religious exemption at any point, but schools are required to have proof of vaccination or an exemption form on file within 90 days of the start of school.

Dr. Jana Shaw, a childhood vaccination researcher and professor at SUNY Upstate Medical University, said Mississippi’s process is more stringent than several other states.

Of those who applied for a religious exemption in the first two and a half weeks, over 80% requested exemption from all eight of the vaccines required for child care or school entry. Those vaccines protect against hepatitis B; polio; diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis; haemophilus influenzae type b; pneumonia and meningitis; measles, mumps and rubella; and chickenpox.

Prior to the court ruling, Mississippi led the nation in childhood vaccinations as one of six states without a religious exemption for vaccines. It’s unclear exactly what impact this new exemption will have, but researchers have generally found a decline in childhood vaccination rates when a religious or personal exemption is added.

Vaccine requirement opponents have been unsuccessfully lobbying the Legislature for a religious exemption provision for years. Mississippi hasn’t had a religious exemption for child vaccinations since 1979.

“This is the … one thing that I did not have to hang my head in shame about,” said State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney, referencing Mississippi’s poor health outcomes, in a July 20 interview with SuperTalk.

Shaw said these types of policies in other states have led to a decline in childhood vaccination rates, but the size of that decline varies. An annual report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows nearly 10% of kindergarteners received exemptions in Idaho in the 2021-22 school year, while only 1% did in Massachusetts.

When discussing that decline, Shaw said state-level statistics are limited in their usefulness because they can disguise pockets of unvaccinated children in specific communities that can  “easily start and fuel outbreaks.”

Of those who requested exemptions in the first few weeks, five counties had over 30 forms submitted: Jackson, George, Pike, Lincoln, and Madison.

Shaw also said religious exemptions are rarely actually about religious beliefs, as none of the major religions object to vaccination.

“Religious exemptions are often used, or abused, by those who do not want to vaccinate their children and use it for their personal objection to vaccination,” she said.

Attorney General Lynn Fitch admitted in her filings for this lawsuit that the compulsory vaccination law, considered on its own, would violate parents’ rights, something the judge cited in his ruling.

“For a federal judge to overturn it (the compulsory vaccination law), he pretty much had to – the attorney general conceded the point, threw us under the bus, (and there) wasn’t much else that could be done,” Edney said in his SuperTalk interview.

Edney and the Health Department have continued to emphasize the importance of childhood vaccinations and encouraged parents to vaccinate their children, including hosting a series of walk-in vaccination clinics at county health departments.

“Vaccines are victims of their own success,” Shaw said. “Parents don’t see (these diseases) anymore, so they don’t fear them.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.