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Steel Magnolias: Tough Mississippi Laws Protect State Against Measles

The measles outbreak that started Disneyland last month has now affected at least 130 people in 17 states but has yet to take hold in Mississippi.

JACKSON, Miss. — The measles outbreak that started in Disneyland last month has now affected at least 130 people in 17 states and Washington, D.C., according to the CDC, but has yet to take hold in Mississippi.

This is the same place with the nation's highest infant mortality rate, and the second highest level of childhood poverty, but when it comes to vaccines for school children, the Magnolia state leads the nation.

"I'm grateful, really grateful that we haven't had any (cases of the measles) and, I'm hoping that it can continue," said Vickie Kendrick, a mom who was at a local clinic.

Last year, 99.7 percent of kindergartners in Mississippi were listed as "fully vaccinated" — compared to say 85 percent in Pennsylvania and 92 percent in California, the epicenter of the outbreak.

So what's Mississippi's secret? Decades ago, the legislature passed a strict mandatory vaccination law for kids — without some of the loopholes found in other states. Here are no exemptions for religious or philosophical reasons. Only rare medical exemptions are allowed.

"The bottom line is that if we don't vaccinate our children we stand the potential for a public health crisis," said Dr. Timothy Quinn, a family practitioner who has been working for 10 years and never seen a measles case.

MaryJo Perry is not against immunizations — her own kids are vaccinated — but her group, Mississippi Parents for Vaccine Rights, wants more of a choice.

"We feel like parents should be able to do the research on vaccines and be able to discuss these things with their doctors and they out to have the liberty to have vaccine choice," said Perry, who wants lawmakers to make it easier for doctors to grand exemptions.

But state health officials are fighting back.

"This choice of not vaccinating their children actually affects the children around your child, not just your child," said Dr. Mary Currier, with the Mississippi Department of Health.

A measles vaccine is shown on a countertop at the Tamalpais Pediatrics clinic Friday, Feb. 6, 2015, in Greenbrae, Calif.Eric Risberg / AP