Opinion

Time to end the anti-vaccine trend in Maine

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Maine has an unusually high number of kids who are entering school without vaccinations – and the number is rising.

According to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control, the number of Maine families refusing to vaccinate their children is more than three times the national average, putting at risk not only the unvaccinated children but also people in their communities with weakened immune systems, including pregnant women, young infants and people with cancer.

The Maine Legislature is currently considering a bill – LD 798 – that would remove exemptions to the state’s vaccination requirements based on philosophical or religious reasons.

The bill cleared its first floor votes in the Maine House of Representatives and will be considered by the Senate in the coming days. The vote was closer than it should have been, with 79 House members supporting the measure and 59 opposed.

The debate over mandatory vaccinations has become emotionally and politically charged, with passionate testimony on both sides. While I disagree, some opponents of vaccines are sincere in their beliefs. They are afraid for their children and that’s a powerful motivator. Others claim a religious exemption to immunizing their children.

Fear and passion – particularly in areas of public health – cannot be allowed to overcome sound public policy and put at risk the health of our communities.

Nancy Beardsley, the acting director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, testified in favor of removing the vaccinations exemptions.

“Thirty-three states do not allow any personal belief exemptions. Maine is an outlier in this regard,” Beardsley said during a lengthy public hearing on the issue. “Evidence shows that states that have tighter exemptions have higher immunization rates and less disease.”

Beardsley continued: “The scientific evidence supporting immunization is overwhelming, sound and supported by the professional medical community. Vaccines are proven safe and effective.”

Vaccines are the single most effective way to improve a person’s health over their lifetime by safely preventing disease. There is no connection between vaccines and autism, and the debate is animated by a lot of pseudoscience and fear mongering. As a parent, it never occurred to me to deny my children vaccines.

But it turns out, many of my neighbors think differently. The Portland Press Herald examined the opt-out rates for elementary schools around the state and I was shocked by the results. Nearly 16 percent of the students at the school where my kids went to kindergarten are not vaccinated. The rate at a school just a few blocks from my house is nearly 10 percent.

According to the Maine CDC, communities begin to lose the benefits of what’s called herd immunity when vaccination rates fall below 95 percent.

Maine has the highest rate of whooping cough in the country. Measles, a disease once nearly eradicated in the US, is making a scary comeback.

Much of the spread of the disease can be laid at the feet of people who aren’t vaccinated.

“When some choose not to vaccinate, the decision can jeopardize the health and safety of entire communities, especially the weakest and most vulnerable among us,” Beardsley testified.

Opposition to vaccinations doesn’t neatly align with partisan politics, though most Republicans in the House voted against eliminating the exemptions, joined by a few Democrats.

The prospects in the Senate aren’t clear. And the fight likely won’t end even if the bill passes and is signed by the governor. We can expect court challenges, though similar vaccine requirements have been upheld in other states.

Ideally, we would not need to legislate the particulars of health care for children, but with rising rates of opt-outs and the return of serious childhood diseases, public health requires a public response.

Eliminating vaccine exemptions can help Maine reverse a disturbing trend, get more students started off on a healthier life and protect members of our community who are counting on the rest of us to act responsibly.

Vaccines are safe. They work, and more people should get them.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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