It took a small-town chiropractor named Charles Brown to vaccinate millions of children for decades – all because he didn’t want to vaccinate his own.
It was 1979 in Houston, Mississippi, and Brown had to enroll his 6-year-old son in school. But state law required the boy to be vaccinated against certain diseases, and Brown refused to vaccinate his son. At the time, Mississippi had two exceptions to this law: a medical exception for children who had a disease that prevented them from receiving certain vaccinations, and a religious exception, but only for religious groups whose doctrines specifically prohibit vaccinations, such as Brown’s son was not entitled to either of the two exceptions. So Brown sued.
Brown argues that By limiting the exemption to certain religious groups, the law violated its First Amendment rights and should be extended to any Religion. (The Browns were Christians, but not a sect eligible for a medical exemption.) The case went to the state Supreme Court, where it backfired spectacularly. Rather than expanding the religious exception, the judges argued that the exception was a violation of Amendment 14 in the first place, as it placed the rights of certain religious parents above the rights of other parents. The regional court has completely repealed the exception.
With this decision Mississippi became only the second state (to West Virginia) not to offer exceptions for religious or personal beliefs his vaccination order for children. Mississippi now consequent has the highest vaccination rate in the country for those starting school.
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Mississippi’s vaccination rates for children are in sharp contrast to COVID-19 vaccination rates. As of Thursday, 44.5 percent of eligible Mississippi are completely vaccinatedto make it 46th in the nation. In fact, Mississippi’s overall vaccination record – aside from kindergarten kids – isn’t great: The State ranks much lower in the vaccination quotas for small children and adolescents, as the mandatory vaccination only applies to those starting school.
It therefore stands to reason to wonder whether Mississippi – and other states that are hesitant about vaccines – will expand their mandates to include the COVID-19 vaccine once it is approved for use in children aged 5 and over. School mandates are one of the few tools states have to enforce vaccination, and they are effective. Other jurisdictions are already considering or have already enacted such a mandate: California has announced plans to make the COVID-19 vaccination compulsory for attending primary school, and School districts have across the country made it a requirement for extracurricular activities.
However, adding COVID-19 vaccinations to existing school mandates is not without risk. If an unpopular and highly politicized vaccine is added to the list, opponents could begin to question all vaccine requirements. In other federal states this is already the case in some cases. In Ohio, state house Republicans introduced a bill that would ban all vaccine mandates, of any kind, for any vaccine, although it was never voted out of the committee. And in Tennessee, Republican lawmakers put pressure on the Department of Health Temporarily stop vaccine use to minors for every shot, not just the COVID-19 jab. It’s an idea that could be gaining popularity with Republican voters as well. The Economist / YouGov have asked Americans in the past whether they think “parents should be required to have their children vaccinated against infectious diseases.” In the past, and even last year, the majority of Republicans and Democrats answered yes, but in a new poll Released yesterday, only 46 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement. This battle puts two very serious public health considerations against each other: either leave the COVID-19 vaccine off the school mandate and risk putting millions of children and communities at greater risk of the virus, or add it and risk the whole Vaccination schedule falls short of attack.
When it comes to vaccinations for kids, Magnolia State just can’t be beat. In the 2019-2020 school year, more than 99 percent of kindergarten children in Mississippi have been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which track kindergarten vaccination rates in each state for MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella), DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough), and chickenpox vaccines. While vaccination rates for children in the US are generally high, Mississippi is exceptional – it has a coverage rate of more than 99 percent for all three vaccinations. Other state rates for kindergarten children were only 84 percent (for the DTaP vaccine in Indiana). The second highest rate (in West Virginia, also for DTaP) was 98.8 percent. Vaccination mandates for children have always been political, but usually not partisan. The modern anti-Vax movement has fought over mandates and their exemptions, but as I reported earlier, the anti-Vax movement has long been a bipartisan issue. As a result, vaccination rates in children are not falling biased how COVID-19 vaccination rates are developing – Red states have just as high vaccination rates for children as blue ones.
Like most states, Mississippi has its Share of pushback of anti-vaccine groups on the mandate (and in particular the lack of exemptions). But these efforts didn’t bring much except for a few proposed laws that died in committee. According to James Colgrove, professor of social medicine at Columbia University who studies public health policy, the mandate was largely tolerated by the public.
“I haven’t found any evidence that there was widespread resistance,” Colgrove said. “The evidence we have to support them is mostly negative evidence: the absence of lawsuits and controversies.”
If measles outbreaks have occurred in recent years, Mississippi was spared due to its high vaccination rates, even when outbreaks hit neighboring states. These outbreaks remind the public of what vaccines are protecting them from and can be helpful in getting or upholding the vaccination law. Look at California, which is a Measles outbreak to away with his personal belief / religion liberation in 2015.
But Mississippi didn’t embrace the COVID-19 vaccine in the same way. Government agencies and nonprofits have worked together to remove barriers to vaccine access – efforts that helped the state close its early racial divide. But nearly half of the state’s eligible population remains unvaccinated, and the politicization of the pandemic has undoubtedly played a role. It is mitigating to say that all of the hesitant vaccination is due simply to the fact that Mississippi is a red state (Republicans are less likely to be vaccinated against COVID-19 than Democrats), but there is a connection: counties with a higher voter share for Trump have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state.