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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi has some of the worst rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in the U.S., but public health officials brag that it ranks best in the nation for childhood immunization.
Physicians are lobbying against a bill that would broaden the exemptions for vaccinations required to enter school or day care. The state health officer, Dr. Mary Currier, says loosening immunization requirements could put people at risk of contracting preventable diseases such as measles.
Members of a group called Mississippi Parents for Vaccine Rights say that they, and not the government, should decide whether and when to immunize their children. More than a dozen parents, some carrying babies or pushing strollers, have been at the Capitol the past two weeks talking to lawmakers and handing out fliers that call the childhood vaccination program "a massive, profit-churning government program."
A leader of the parents' group, Mary Jo Perry of Pelahatchie, has children who are 24, 13 and 11. She said that when her youngest child was 5, he had seizures within 72 hours of having a vaccination.
"I am convinced beyond any shadow of a doubt if I had had him vaccinated him when he was a tiny baby, we would not have him as he is today because of the adverse reaction," Perry said in an interview Thursday.
House Bill 130 would allow parents or guardians to get a certificate saying they have conscientious objections to certain vaccinations for their children. It would have to be renewed every year. The state already allows people to seek exemptions from the vaccine schedule because of medical situations. For example, Currier said, a person with a compromised immune system would qualify for a medical exemption.
The conscientious objections bill awaits debate in the House Education Committee. Similar bills have died in previous years when they were sent to other committees. The Education Committee chairman, Republican Rep. John Moore of Brandon, said he doesn't know whether the bill will gain enough momentum to survive this year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that for 2013-14, Mississippi had the largest percentage of kindergartners in public and private schools who have been vaccinated against diseases. Mississippi had a 99.7 percent vaccination rate for that age group for three vaccines: measles, mumps and rubella; the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis; and the varicella. The national median was 93.3 to 95 percent.
The bill's main sponsor, Republican Rep. Mark Formby of Picayune, said most states already allow exemptions to vaccination requirements based on parents' beliefs.
"I'm not anti-vaccine. I believe that most of the parents I represent would still vaccinate their children against certain diseases," Formby said. "What I do believe is that we allow parents to make some pretty incredible decisions in their children's lives.... But in Mississippi we don't allow them to make this incredibly huge decision about how many vaccinations they're going to get."
Currier, whose children are now grown, told House budget writers that she never wanted anyone telling her what to do with her children when they were young.
"But this is not a decision that just affects my kids. If I decide not to vaccinate my children, it affects those children and people around my child — those kids that are too young to be vaccinated or who didn't respond or develop immunity from the vaccine or have a medical reason not to be vaccinated," Currier said. "So, choosing not to vaccinate my children affects those people around my child. I believe that we should have a strong public health law that we have."
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