Preventable diseases like measles may soon rise among young Mississippians after a federal judge forced the State to allow religious exemptions for required vaccinations for children starting school, State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney is warning.
“We were leading the nation with the highest rate of vaccination for our school-aged children and because of that, we haven’t seen measles in 40 years. We haven’t had an outbreak of (preventable childhood illnesses) in a very long time,” he told the Mississippi Free Press on Sept. 6. “And our children have been safe. And our population has not been suffering from these preventable illnesses that can kill our children.”
The Mississippi State Health Department says children must receive vaccines for diptheria, tetanus and pertussis; polio; hepatitis; measles, mumps and rubella; and chickenpox before starting school for the first time. Children must get a pertussis booster shot before entering the seventh grade.
Mississippi parents have been able to request religious exemptions from receiving childhood vaccinations for children starting school since July 15, 2023. U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi Judge Sul Ozerden, an appointee of former Republican President George W. Bush, ordered the State to do so in April in the case Bosarge v. Edney.
Before the ruling, the state was one of five that did not have religious exemptions for childhood vaccines. While other states that allowed exemptions saw a rise in preventable diseases like measles over the past decade, Mississippi has not identified a measles case that originated in the state since 1992. But anti-vaccine activists have fought for years to undo Mississippi’s strict childhood vaccine requirements, which allowed exemptions only for medical reasons. Those efforts ramped up following the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, even though COVID-19 vaccines are not part of the required childhood vaccine regimen, culminating in the April ruling.
‘We Disagreed With The Attorney General’
On Sept. 25, the Mississippi Free Press asked Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s communications director Debbee Hancock if Fitch would appeal the vaccine ruling, but the spokesperson said the attorney general does “not oppose the motion,” as shown in the Aug. 29 summary judgment order.
“Defendant Edney, without waiving his positions as stated in his Notice of Compliance with Preliminary Injunction Order, and the Attorney General have advised that they will not be filing an opposition to Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment and Permanent Injunction,” the order says.
But Edney said the Mississippi State Department of Health may appeal if the Supreme Court takes a separate case, Austin v. the U.S. Navy Seals. In that case, a group of Navy Seals are seeking religious exemptions from military mandates for COVID-19 vaccines. Last year, Fitch filed a brief in support of their effort to obtain religious exemptions in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which hears federal appeals originating in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.
“We (at MSDH) disagreed with the attorney general; we disagreed with the federal judge. We understood our requirement to comply, and we did so in a way to protect the public to the best of our ability,” Edney told the Mississippi Free Press. “And we reserve our right to appeal should the legal situation change, such as the Supreme Court taking up this issue, which there’s a good chance they will based on the Navy Seal case from the 5th Circuit.”
Although Fitch did not defend Mississippi’s childhood vaccination law, she told SuperTalk in a June 27 interview that she would be required to defend theoretical bans on same-sex marriage or birth control if the Legislature attempted to pass such laws.
“Do you have any plans to try to go after and ban contraception or same-sex marriage?” host Dave Hughes asked the attorney general on the Gallo Show.
“You know, I took an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the State of Mississippi,” Fitch said. “So, I have no plans—that’s a legislative action. If something were to come along those lines, then certainly that is my oath of office, and as far as I know, there are no plans in the Mississippi Legislature at this point to pass any bills along those lines.”
Democratic candidate for attorney general Greta Kemp Martin, who is challenging the Republican incumbent in the Nov. 7 election, accused Fitch of making decisions about which laws to defend on an ideological basis.
“The State of Mississippi counts on her to defend lawsuits. Period,” Martin told the Mississippi Free Press at a Sept. 22 press conference in Tupelo, Miss. “But what AG Fitch likes to do is she likes to pick and choose when she decides to use her oath of office as a reason to defend lawsuits. Every lawsuit should be defended.”
‘A Communal Contract’
State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney told SuperTalk on Aug. 2 that Mississippi must “maintain at least a 95% (vaccination rate) or we’re at risk, again, of outbreaks.” Before the State began allowing religious exemptions, Mississippi boasted the nation’s highest childhood vaccination rate with 98.9% of children entering kindergarten being fully vaccinated.
Dr. Keith Krist, a pediatrician at West Point Children’s Clinic, pointed to research from Orthodox Jewish communities in New York and New Jersey that had a measles outbreak in 2018 and 2019. Those communities only had a 77% vaccination rate
“I think that’s a concern that we can see those preventable diseases come back,” he told the Mississippi Free Press on Sept. 20. “I think there have been cases in New York in religious communities where preventable diseases have emerged, such as whooping cough, polio virus, and you know, we know that vaccines prevent those diseases.”
Distrust in vaccines rose during the COVID-19 pandemic era as misinformation about vaccine safety spread, Krist said. That has caused some Mississippians to fall behind on all vaccinations. The pediatrician also said many people did not go to the doctor during the early stages of the pandemic because they did not want to catch an illness, so they may have missed some shots. He encouraged those who fell behind on vaccinations to “get caught up” and “stay on track.”
Krist called vaccines a “communal contract,” meaning each person in a community upholds a responsibility to keep their neighbors safe and to be especially cautious around those who are immunocompromised. Health experts often warn that allowing non-medical exemptions for children who can safely receive vaccines endangers immunocompromised children who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons.
“I think it is important that people not only look at their own health and the health of their family but think of the communities in which they live and know that these simple, safe measures to prevent illness, serious illness, from rippling through the community,” Krist said.