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Sunday Focus: Mississippi top state for children’s vaccinations

Cameron King, 2, receives a Hepatitis A vaccination from nurse Janna Burns while getting his routine two-year-old vaccination required by his daycare program as his great grandmother Classie Johnson comforts him. Mississippi has the highest vaccination rate of school-age children in the country.  (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

Cameron King, 2, receives a Hepatitis A vaccination from nurse Janna Burns while getting his routine two-year-old vaccination required by his daycare program as his great grandmother Classie Johnson comforts him. Mississippi has the highest vaccination rate of school-age children in the country. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — Despite a long list of poor health statistics for children’s health, Mississippi received a gold star in one category. The Magnolia State currently boasts the highest vaccination rate for school-age children.

State health officials credit strict medical exemption policies for Mississippi’s impressive vaccination rating.

“We’re one of the only states that doesn’t allow a philosophical or religious opposition for vaccines,” said Leslie England, District 7 health officer for the Mississippi State Department of Health. “Our philosophy in Mississippi is that getting vaccinated is a social obligation.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 99.7 percent of kindergarteners were vaccinated in the 2013-2014 school year.

Once vaccination rates reach 90 percent, England said “herd immunity” is established, which means children who are not vaccinated have little chance of contracting vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, childhood pneumonia and chicken pox.

Immunizations against childhood diseases are required by law in order to enter any school, Head Start or daycare program in Mississippi. Specific vaccinations for diseases such as hepatitis and meningococcal disease are recommended for high school or college students.

For Natchez resident Classie Johnson, getting vaccinations for her great grandson, Cameron Johnson, was a simple decision.

“I truly believe every parent should have their child vaccinated,” Johnson said Tuesday while 2-year-old Cameron received three vaccinations at the Natchez Pediatric Clinic. “When I was growing up, we didn’t have these vaccinations available, so I think it’s great that this generation has this.”

Janna Burns, who has worked as a licensed practical nurse at the clinic for seven years, said she administers anywhere from 15 to 25 vaccinations a day.

Most children Burns vaccinates are between 2 years and 15 months old.

“I think it’s great that Mississippi has such strict vaccination laws,” Burns said while updating Cameron’s vaccination record. “These vaccinations prevent disease, and that’s a good thing for children in Mississippi.”

The only other state that doesn’t allow religious or philosophical exemptions for vaccinations is West Virginia.

Mary Currier, Mississippi’s state health officer, said it’s important strict vaccination laws stay in place.

“By vaccinating as many kids as possible, you’re preventing transmission to kids who can’t be vaccinated,” Currier said. “I know that there are people who don’t like this law and believe vaccinations should be parents’ choice. But, whether or not you vaccinate your child, that affects more than just your child.”

To qualify for vaccine exemption in Mississippi, Currier said a child must be diagnosed with a poor immune system at birth. Then, parents have to fill out a medical exemption request form, which is approved by the state health department.

Most children are vaccinated as infants or sometime before entering school.

In Adams County, no cases of diseases preventable by vaccinations have been reported recently, and both England and Currier said they don’t expect that number to change anytime soon.

“We do so well with getting children vaccinated and so poorly in other areas, it would be a shame to go backwards,” Currier said.

Essentially, public health trumps parental choice in Mississippi—“and that’s why our vaccination rates are so strong,” England said.

CDC records indicate states with the highest amount of unvaccinated children are Colorado, Pennsylvania and Arkansas. States with the highest exemption rates are Oregon, Idaho and Vermont.

“The measles epidemic started in California, and that’s a state that allows philosophical oppositions,” England said. “Here in Mississippi, we haven’t had that problem.”

Rep. Sam Mims, public health and human services chairperson, said most of his constituents believe getting their children vaccinated is the right choice.

“There is a group that believe parents should have philosophical waiver, and they did present a bill for that,” said Mims, R-McComb.

“That legislation was referred to the education committee, but it died in the house.”

And although some opposition has been voiced, England said he doesn’t foresee a change in Mississippi’s vaccination policy.

“It’s said if you’re going into the Army and someone offers you armor—you put it on,” England said. “Vaccinations are like armor. It’s foolish if you don’t get one.”

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