JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - As the conversation regarding measles ramps up across the country, another conversation is being had as well. One that calls into question what most have never questioned - the safety of vaccines. The topic of vaccination choice is still somewhat taboo, sparking heated debate among parents and pediatricians alike, yet the number of adults choosing to opt-out of mandatory immunizations for their children has continued to grow.
Though it may come as a surprise due to the state’s low ranking in almost everything else, Mississippi sits at number one in the country in regards to childhood-vaccination rates with almost 100%. While this has been a point of pride for most state leaders, some view this near perfect score as a sign of a legislature having too much power over its constituents. Enter MaryJo Perry.
Perry is the co-director of the organization Mississippi Parents for Vaccine Rights, a group whose Facebook page alone has nearly 8,000 followers and counting. The mission of MPVR is to “raise awareness and educate citizens and lawmakers regarding the basic human right to informed voluntary consent in vaccine risk-taking.” On their website, it says that the group views the state’s vaccine laws as “oppressive” and a violation of “civil rights of conscience and religion.” And that’s only in the second paragraph.
Perry says her crusade for vaccine rights began after her youngest son’s third round of shots where within 72-hours of taking them he was having seizures.
“He had seizures in his bed overnight. He fell out of his bed with a seizure. He had a seizure in the hallway on the way to the kitchen, and then he had one on the kitchen floor,” Perry recalls.
After this, the family sought a medical exemption from his last vaccination — a Pertussis booster. He was denied three times. Because his parents felt it wasn't safe for him to get this last shot, and since he was denied an exemption from it, he was banned from kindergarten in accordance with Mississippi’s law which requires all mandatory vaccines be taken before one is allowed entry into school.
“And then I got to looking into it more and discovered that the health department here in Mississippi has such a ruthless agenda to be first in the nation in vaccine coverage rates, because we’re not first in anything else, that they will throw kids like mine under the bus so that they don’t have to grant an exemption,” Perry says.
While leading the nation in coverage rates, Mississippi ties with West Virginia in having the countries strictest vaccine laws, only offering medical exemptions for vaccinations unlike other states which offer exemptions based on religious and personal beliefs also.
Perry and her husband would eventually get their son into school, but describe the task as a “rigmarole.” Through this course of events, a fire was lit. She got involved politically, created MPVR and has dedicated a large section of her life to spreading the message of vaccination choice.
“I think Mississippians have been un-engaged. How many vaccines is too many for the government to require?” she asks. “If we allow them to mandate us to use whatever vaccines they want us to use, what could that look like down the road? I think it’s a civil right to reject an injectable pharmaceutical drug… Here we are in Mississippi, we make sure children get all these vaccines and our kids are sick and dying. Now, are there some other issues that play into that? Sure there are. Our kids are probably weaker. They’re coming from unhealthy parents a lot of the time. But Mississippi is just not getting it right.”
Perry makes it a point to say that she is not anti-vaccine, citing a time she met a man who actually did want all vaccines banned. “I think that’s nuts,” she laughed. She also makes it clear that she is not anti-doctor either.
“I trust my doctor. Do I trust all doctors? No,” she states. “Doctors are humans just like we are. I think we need to be educated. We need to take charge of our health, we need to find a doctor that listens and that will work with us… [Mississippi has] an infant mortality that is like third world countries. Despite the high vaccine coverage rate and all the vaccines our kids are getting, we are not vaccinating our way to health in Mississippi.”
Regarding the latest measles scare, Perry simply calls it “hysteria” and “over sensationalized.”
“The measles vaccine was introduced in 1963. In 1962 there were an estimated 4 million cases of measles and there were 423 deaths. They claim last year that we had over 80,000 deaths from the flu, just to put it in perspective as to how rare deaths were in the United States from measles.”
It is in this measles debate where she finds pushback from those antagonistic towards the vaccine choice rational. What if, say, a 9-year-old who wasn't vaccinated against the measles was to give it to a 9-month-old child? Isn't it selfish of a parent to not provide that protection to their kid if it, in turn, endangered the life of another?
“No one has died [of measles] in decades in the United States,” she counters. “But a 9-month-old baby, even still it’s gonna be rare that that child dies from measles, you know? And if it’s a baby girl then she'll pass on immunity to her children. So, is it selfish? I mean…” she pauses, “No. My son, they told me that vaccines didn't have anything to do with his problems. So I continued vaccinating him and my kid got hurt. Maybe I think they're selfish for pushing it on my kid. Am I suppose to light my child on fire to keep their kid warm? That's not American.”
“The fact is, when I was growing up, the coverage rate for measles was like sixty-percent,” she continues. “I never knew anyone who got measles and died. We didn’t even have a chickenpox vaccine. We all had chickenpox. I never knew anyone who was even hospitalized. Does it happen? Yes. But six children die every day in a car accident in the United States. It's all about perspective. You can find deaths that were from complications of the common cold. Are we gonna vaccinate for everything? Where does it stop? I know babies that have died within seven hours, little baby girl in Oxford died within seven hours of her 2-month-old shots.”
Doctors will also argue that serious reactions to vaccines are too infrequent to forgo a shot that may put one’s own child’s health at risk later on, but Perry is adamant when saying that vaccine related injuries are more common than one would expect.
“I have an army of mothers that I could line up to tell you that it is not rare,” she states. “If you give your child a vaccine and he’s perfect in every way and in 72-hours your child is convulsing; I’ve had people say that you can’t prove it’s from the vaccine. I mean it’s just gotten beyond common sense anymore. What do you want, an autopsy? How do you prove something like that? There are some things you use good judgement on and if you give your child a shot and the drug insert says it can cause convulsions and it causes convulsions, then you don’t do it again.”
Another member of the vaccine rights movement is Representative Dan Eubanks of DeSoto. In a phone-call, Eubanks discussed witnessing his son seizing the same day as getting his shots, placing the blame on the MMR vaccine. Eubanks now works two jobs so his wife can stay at home with their boy who is homeschooled.
He says that the number of required vaccines is due to the pharmaceutical company wanting more money, describing it an industry - “One of the most lucrative in the world.” Eubanks admits that a lot of good has come from vaccines, “But now it’s become a money maker."
“This isn’t me being conspiratorial,” he suggests, "two-hundred-and-twenty-eight million dollars has been spent lobbying for big pharma.” He says that this amount is for last year alone, not a lump sum.
The representative describes the movement in favor of vaccine choice as “a freedom, constitutional issue… You should have right to deny it. If you get sick and die, then that’s on you.”
He also brings attention to the current measles outbreak in New York City in which Mayor Bill DeBlasio has declared a public health emergency, controversially requiring mandatory vaccinations, which, if not followed, will require a $1,000 fine. These mandatory vaccinations, Eubanks argues, are a violation of First Amendment rights and are the result of fear-mongering.
“What is slavery?” he asks. “You have no right over your body. What is rape? That is someone forcing their agenda onto you. It really is tantamount. When you’re stripped of what you can do to your body, that is slavery.”
After all this time, MaryJo Perry says that she has begun to see progress in the state regarding vaccine choice.
“The fact that we’re snowballing and we’ve got healthcare professionals getting involved, and that, sadly, we’ve got legislators whose children are being vaccine injured who were against us in the past. Sometimes it takes that. You know, it’s easy to dismiss somebody else and their experience, but when it happens to you it’s a total game changer.”
But does the constant conflict ever get to her? An example of this being a man once commenting “I hope your kid dies” on the MPVR Facebook page wall. How does one deal with that?
“The way I see it, I do believe this is a spiritual battle. I firmly believe that our battle is not against flesh and blood. I think this is a spiritual battle. And the way I see it is I have got my marching orders from the Lord and I follow them; I obey Him and I leave the consequences to Him. I don’t care what anybody thinks about me. I don’t. Because I’m that sure that I know the truth.”
Dr. Dennis Rowlen has been with Rankin Children’s Medical Group since 1985 and describes the current vaccine debate happening in the country as “extremely frustrating” with the possibility of being dangerous.
He says that his frustration may be from a different angle than others, that he’s from a time when some of the vaccines we have today hadn’t yet been created, that he saw these pre-vaccine diseases first-hand and the affects of them.
“And most people today are really uninformed about what those diseases are like, what they do, what the risk factors are,” Rowlen says. “And in cases like is happening right now where people stop immunizing, those diseases start making a comeback. I’m afraid that there are gonna be children that suffer just from not having the immunizations when they come in contact with these things. Currently there’s a measles outbreak across the whole United States, and those kids get sick. They get really sick. And it doesn't have to happen. But the fear of the vaccines, for too many people, is greater than the fear of the disease and the main reason for that is people haven’t seen the disease.”
And to the logic that measles was once just a common childhood disease?
“Anybody that would say that measles is just something that everybody got wasn’t there to see it. I was,” he remarks. “And I have people here who come in and say ‘We’re not gonna vaccinate’ and I have learned don’t argue with those folks. So many of these people have made their minds up already and really don’t want to understand. They want to come in here and tell you what they think, tell you what they know,” he says using air quotes, “and I’m supposed to pat them on the back and give them a blessing, and I can’t do that.”
On the topic of Mississippi's mandatory vaccines infringing on the rights of those in the vaccine choice movement, Rowlen says he doesn't see it like that at all. Actually, he sees it in the complete opposite way.
“If we have vaccines and vaccine laws, and you choose not to vaccinate your child, then I think you’re infringing on other people’s rights and putting other people at risk,” he admits.
Rowlen also sees flaws in the argument that only those who are un-vaccinated will be affected if an outbreak were to happen.
“You cannot say that because no vaccine is one-hundred percent. And they’ll say, ‘Well my kid is the one that’s gonna get hurt.’ Well what if mine is the one that the vaccine failed for? And your exposure to my child caused mine to get something that we are trying to prevent? I mean, you look at vaccines and they’re gonna give you eighty-five, ninety-five percent coverage, but there is no one-hundred percent effective vaccine.”
One of the most widely used and well-known arguments against certain vaccines is their supposed link to autism. Some see the dramatic spike in autism around the world and the increased number of vaccines used and make the connection between the two.
“There was a study in the United Kingdom several years ago when people really got afraid of the measles vaccine - that causing autism,” Rowlen explains. “People just across the board pretty much stopped giving the measles vaccine. Well, the predictable happened. Measles started showing back up. But it was interesting to find out that when the rate of vaccinations dropped off, you would think that the rate of diagnoses of autism would drop with it. It didn’t. The diagnoses of autism stayed the same even though people weren’t giving that vaccine anymore. So that pretty much shot that.”
But while he does not think that autism and vaccines have any correlation, he does agree that autism rates are rising.
“It’s way more prominent than it ever used to be. I don’t know why. Nobody can give us an answer why this is. That’s one of the great mysteries we’re seeing right now. I don’t even know what the statistics are now, but it’s some astronomical number. 1-in-200, 1-in-100, 1-in-50, and it’s just continued. And that’s not full blown autism as much as we have autism spectrum disorder now. It can be anything from mild to the most severe types. But much more prominent than we’ve ever thought about before.”
Rowlen also sympathizes with those children who do have serious reactions to vaccinations, but he says that the risk just does not outweigh the reward in getting immunized.
“The odds are you won’t because the likelihood of having any of these [reactions] is so remote. But let me ask this: What if you don’t get vaccinated and you do get measles? What’s the likelihood that your child is gonna lose their hearing? Or if you’re a teenage boy whose not been vaccinated against mumps, he very well may develop orchitis which is an inflammation of the testicles that’s gonna render him sterile. The odds are higher of that happening then they are a reaction to the vaccine.”
Lastly, Rowlen argues that the vaccines aren’t to blame for the poor health of Mississippi’s children, but points to our high teen pregnancy rate, extreme poverty and poor diet.
“We are much more in the unhealthy state because we are too sedentary and we have just about the worst eating habits then anybody in the country. Yeah, we may be the most unhealthy state, but it’s not because of vaccines.”
“The vaccination development process goes through multiple years of research,” says Dr. Bhagyashri Navalkele, an infection disease specialist with the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “The FDA approves these vaccines only after this vaccination has gone under trials. It undergoes trials to make sure that it’s effective and safe to be given. And then the FDA approves these vaccines to make sure it will provide the immunity which it is supposed to provide and that there are no harmful affects from the vaccines.”
Navalkele goes on to say that physicians can also record vaccine associated events even after the vaccine is approved, to which the FDA will re-analyze whether the vaccine is safe or not. She also explains that to date no vaccine has ever been recalled, noting their safety by saying that it can take years for a vaccine to get the approval needed in order to be given to the public.
On whether she feels that every vaccine is necessary, Navalkele does not hesitate in answering.
“Yes! Absolutely. The vaccines, again, if you look at the history, there were so many diseases before which resulted in deaths in children, adults as well. Just take the example of measles. Before, like, 1957, everyone had measles as a natural childhood disease, but it resulted in a really high mortality… And if you look at the rate of disease... it has gone down dramatically. In the U.S. itself there was no case of measles identified for years. And now because of less vaccinations, anti-vaccinations movements, and travel, it has become that we are getting more outbreaks and seeing more measles cases.”
“If you do not vaccinate children who have a weak immune system, [measles] can result in other complications,” she says, noting that a child can contract pneumonia or obtain ear infections which can result in permanent hearing loss. A child can even develop brain swelling, which can be fatal. “That’s why it’s extremely important that everyone is getting vaccinated.”
Navalkele then begins to describe what measles actually looks like, detailing the high fever, the runny nose, the rash that travels down the infected person’s face, hands and legs. She also talks about how easily it can spread.
“Say I’m coughing, sneezing, and I have measles. It can remain suspended in the air up to two hours. If I leave this room, someone else comes in who has a weak immune system, even if they come in an hour later, they can still catch it. If a person is passing by, just passing by, they can still catch it. It’s that contagious.”
Before leaving I ask one more question. “Are vaccines safe?”
“Yes,” she says. “Absolutely.”
Dr. Paul Byers is Mississippi’s State Epidemiologist, which, according to Google, is “the branch of medicine which deals with the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases and other factors relating to health.”
He defends the state’s high vaccine rate, saying, “Our vaccine laws not only protect the individual who is receiving those vaccinations, but also provides protection to those individuals in the school who are not able to be vaccinated for medical reason. When you get your child vaccinated, when you are vaccinated yourself, not only are you protecting yourself, you’re protecting those around you by having those high vaccination rates. So this is really for protection of the kids and the kids who can’t get vaccinated.”
Though most of Mississippi’s children have been immunized, Byers says that parents should be aware of the potential exposures to diseases like measles and that by being vaccinated, it protects infants who are too young to have their shots.
And finally, on the subject of Mississippi and vaccinations, could Byers ever see the laws in the state becoming less strict?
“You know, that question comes up almost on an annual basis, and one of the things that we want to do is base our recommendations on science. Science tells us that vaccines are safe, that they’re the best protection for yourself and for your children. So I’ll tell you one of the things that we want to make sure that we do in Mississippi is keep those vaccination requirements strong. We still want to limit this to medical exemptions in Mississippi.”
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