Thursday, February 6, 2014

Mississippi Parent Group Working to Make It Easier to Get Sick

In the United States, every state has some manner of requirements for immunizations before children are allowed to attend schools or day care. They vary from state to state, with some requiring almost all of the vaccinations on the recommended immunization schedule, while others only require a smaller subset. Each state decides which ones they will require, and which they simply recommend. As with any medical intervention, there may be medical reasons that a person should not receive a vaccine. Usually, this is something like an allergic reaction to a previous immunization or one of the ingredients or because at the time the shot would normally have been given, the patient had an illness which contraindicated the vaccine. In other instances, the child may have a chronic disease or disorder that prevents safe immunization. Because of this, every state allows for medical exemptions to school immunization requirements. Nearly all states allow for a religious exemption, with Mississippi and West Virginia being the odd ones out. A smaller proportion of states allow for a broader sort of exemption: the philosophical (or personal belief) exemption. Like the laws requiring immunization, these exemptions vary by state (a map of which states allow which type of exemptions can be found at the Institute for Vaccine Safety).

As I mentioned, Mississippi and West Virginia are unlike the rest of the country, in that they only allow for medical exemptions from school and day care immunization requirements. However, a recent report in the Clarion Ledger discusses the efforts of one organization to change the law in Mississippi, by trying to pass legislation that would establish a philosophical exemption in that state.

Mississippi Parents for Vaccine Rights describe themselves thus:
We are a group of parents, grandparents, and friends determined to see a philosophical exemption added to Mississippi Code 41-23-37. Under the current law, parents must vaccinate their children in order for their child to attend a public school, private school or daycare. Parents who do not wish to vaccinate their child are left only with the option of homeschooling their child or moving out of Mississippi. This is not always a viable option for a family.

Parents in 48 other states have the right to choose whether or not to vaccinate their child without having to worry about the child's education. Mississippi's current law violates the parents' right to choose what is best for their child.
They just want the same options that most of the rest of the country has when it comes to vaccinating their children. Perfectly reasonable, right? Well...maybe, maybe not. I can certainly understand their angst at looking across the border and seeing their neighbors getting to do something that they can't. In a way, it reminds me of every child's plaintive cry, "But Billy's mom doesn't make him do it!" When I was a kid, I tried to use that line of reasoning to get out of chores or get something I wanted, and as an adult, I've heard other children make the same argument. The goal was to get what I thought was best for myself. Being a kid, I wanted what was the most fun or the least effort. But the typical parental reply was usually along the lines of, "Well, I'm not Billy's mom, am I?" My parents had a good reason for making me do my chores or not letting me have what I wanted. They were trying to do what was best for me, and they were generally right. In a similar fashion, the government of Mississippi is trying to do what is best for its citizens: prevent disease. And the best means currently available to accomplish that is to ensure that the individuals at greatest risk of getting infected, spreading and being harmed by diseases (i.e., kids) are vaccinated.

What happens when you take a whole bunch of personal-hygiene-challenged individuals prone to touching everything around them, including each other (talking about kids again) and put them in a confined space like, I dunno, a school classroom? You get the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. The bugs love that. It's a microscopic Mardi Gras with no police around to spoil the fun. They get to party like the parents aren't home. There are two ways to ruin their fun: keep the kids out of those spaces or ensure that everyone that can be immunized is immunized. And that's what the current laws in Mississippi do: immunize or stay out of schools or day care until you are immune.

In an ideal world, there would be no need to force people to behave in a responsible manner. But people are people. They're selfish. They think they know more than they actually do. Hell, they think they know more after spending a few hours attending Google University than someone who spent their entire college, grad school and post-grad careers studying the stuff. They think they're doing what's best for their children, when they're actually increasing their own child's risks as well as all of the other kids at their day care or school. They think they're making a decision for just their kid, but they aren't. They are making a choice for the rest of the kids at the school, too. (And before you ask, "But if vaccines work, then what's the big deal?", read this post.) If you want to be part of the community, then take responsibility for protecting the community. Don't want to take on that responsibility? Then don't be a part of that community. When it comes to protecting the community, the government (local, state, Federal) can only do so much and still be cost effective. When it comes to communicable diseases, the best means available are school immunizations requirements.

Now, I understand that staying home to care for or educate your child is hard. As MPVR says, it's not always a viable option for families. And, quite frankly, it shouldn't be. It should not be easy to put your child at increased risk of disease because you read something online that convinced you that you know more than people who have spent their lives studying the subject. It should not be easy to make it easier for an outbreak to start (or spread) in your community. Most of all, it should not be easy to put your rights above those of your child.

And really, that's what groups like Mississippi Parents for Vaccine Rights are all about: the rights of the parents. The parents are the focus, not the kids. I'm sure that some of them really do believe that they're doing what is best for their children. Unfortunately, they're operating on misinformation; the facts support immunization. But they believe, and it's their beliefs that matter most. They may think that their right to choose for their child is absolute and never, ever to be questioned or violated, but here's the thing: children are not their parents' property. Parents are guardians, not owners. They are fallible. They make mistakes. And sometimes those mistakes involve the medical decisions they make for their children. When it comes to vaccines, in particular, the facts are not on their side.

I tried to contact MPVR for comment, but they have not responded. In particular, I wanted to clarify whether they believed that parents' rights regarding medical decisions for their children are absolute and inviolable. I also wondered, if they disagree with being labeled "anti-vaccine", which vaccines did they support and think should be given. Finally, I asked if they had any thoughts on philosophical/personal belief exemption legislation specifically, beyond simply getting it passed. What measures would they propose or support to prevent abuse of the exemption? For example, if parents simply ticked off the box because they were too lazy or forgetful to take their child to get immunized, what would happen? Would that be prevented in some way or have ramifications for false claims? Would MPVR support measures like those in California or Washington, that require parents talk to a health care provider about the risks and benefits of vaccines before an exemption will be granted? Something tells me they just want the exemption with no greater hurdle than just ticking off a box on a form. I might be wrong, and I certainly welcome feedback from them, but I won't hold my breath. I've already given them plenty of time to get back to me.

The irony in all this, though, is that Mississippi Parents for Vaccine Rights' efforts come shortly after Mississippi saw its first pediatric flu death of the season. If MPVR get their way, Mississippi could see more outbreaks of disease, like measles, and more deaths and serious complications from preventable diseases. While MPVR wants to be more like the rest of the country when it comes to vaccine requirements, I'd much rather the rest of the country be more like Mississippi.

1 comment:

  1. I know this is a bit outdated but I've only recently become aware of this group in my neighboring state. They are being promoted by NVIC on NVIC's Facebook page and they've managed to get a few articles written (some positive, others not so positive) in Mississippi newspapers. They also uploaded a video recently accusing the head of the health department in MS of being "out of touch" because she won't repeat anti-vaccine taglines. I left a comment on Youtube but it was promptly removed.

    I'm really concerned about this disparaging of the public health community and the close relationship with a large anti-vaccine lobbying group like NVIC. They are trying to take advantage of high infant mortality rates in MS and associate that with the high vaccine rates. Sadly, there are probably many people who will find that argument convincing.

    I have teen cousins in Mississippi who are benefiting from the state's mandatory vaccine laws, so by association my family and I also benefit (I have one child who is too young for many vaccines, and I was so glad to hear that the kids I was spending the holidays with had all had the flu shot.) I made sure to talk to them about how important the shots were.


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