A swaddled, sleeping infant appears on a large electronic billboard hovering over the Burger King on Main Street in Tupelo.
“Are vaccines killing our babies?” it asks passersby.
“Vaccines are saving our babies,” said Dr. Paul Byers, Mississippi State Department of Health State epidemiologist.
The billboard’s question, posed by the Mississippi Parents for Vaccine Rights, is followed by a startling claim: “50+ Mississippi babies died following routine vaccines.”
It’s the kind of message that’s fueled skepticism surrounding vaccinations in other states, which health officials say has led to outbreaks of diseases in California and, more recently, Minnesota.
Billboard is wrong, doctor says
“If vaccines kill babies, I’m on their side,” Paul Offit, director of the vaccine education center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said of the Mississippi group. “But they don’t.”
Mississippi Parents for Vaccine Rights is using data from the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System to say that 50 children under 2 years old have died in Mississippi following vaccinations in the last two decades.
The adverse events, which can include injuries and deaths, are recorded in the system by anyone who questions whether a vaccine caused an event. Offit said the one-page reporting form can be filled out by anyone: parents, doctors, law firms.
The problem with reporting system data, Byers said, is it does not provide enough information to make scientific conclusions.
“The way VAERS collects that data, it is not possible to draw an association between that adverse event and whatever vaccines were given,” Byers said.
‘Vaccine Death Awareness’ campaign
A Parents for Vaccine Rights supporter purchased the billboard and chose the location, according to the group, which said it hopes to place similar messages around the state.
Cheryl Peeples, regional head of the group’s northeast chapter, said the sign is part of a new “vaccine death awareness” campaign.
“We don’t want parents to be shut down by their doctors. We don’t want doctors denying what parents see with their own eyes and what they’re experiencing when it comes to vaccine injury,” Peeples said. “To me, it’s like the big elephant in the room. It’s there. It’s happening, and we need to discuss it because we don’t need one more child dying from vaccines.”
Peeples said Mississippi Parents for Vaccine Rights does not advocate for or against vaccines, but simply wants parents to be able to make informed decisions.
Vaccines are ‘protecting’ children
Byers, who got his four children vaccinated, called immunizations “the best way for you to start off your child’s life.”
“When you vaccinate your children, not only are you protecting your child, you’re protecting the children around you who are more vulnerable,” Byers said, like babies not old enough for certain vaccines and those with health conditions causing immunosuppression.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccines, like any medication, can come with side effects. “But the risk of a vaccine causing serious harm, or death, is extremely small,” states the CDC website.
Byers said the small, “if any,” risk of side effects associated with vaccines must be weighed against the seriousness of the diseases vaccines are designed to prevent.
“Measles is not a benign illness,” he said. “It can lead to death.”
In April, Mississippi saw its first outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease in a decade. Six baseball players at Pearl River Community College in Poplarville contracted mumps, leading to 13 cases across the campus. Players and coaches experienced facial swelling, fever, headache and tender glands under the ears.
Campaigns against vaccines in other states, including the spread of the debunked claim that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism, has led to outbreaks of preventable diseases.
Minnesota is experiencing its worst measles outbreak in decades with 79 local measles cases confirmed since March, mostly involving unvaccinated preschool children.
While other states have seen a recent resurgence of measles — a potentially fatal disease that had for decades been virtually eradicated by vaccines — Mississippi has avoided similar outbreaks.
Mississippi leads the nation for kindergartners entering school fully immunized with more than 99 percent having received all vaccinations.
“That’s something we need to brag about and we need to hold onto,” Byers said.
That’s in part because Mississippi has some of the strictest laws regarding exemptions for folks who don’t want their children vaccinated.
Mississippi Parents for Vaccine Rights wants to change that.
The group has been unsuccessful in pushing lawmakers during the last several legislative sessions to enact a “conscientious beliefs” vaccine exemption, which would allow a parent to avoid vaccinating his or her child without losing the ability to send the child to public school.
Right now, the state only allows such exemptions for a legitimate medical reason, not based on beliefs, philosophy or religion.
A list of side effects associated with vaccines can be found here.