Maine’s ongoing experiment with a laissez-faire immunization policy is showing results, and they are not good.
Maine is one of a minority of states that allow parents of schoolchildren to opt out of vaccinations for either religious or philosophical reasons. As a result, Maine children are three times less likely to be vaccinated than the national average, one of the worst rates in the country. Maine children are also eight times more likely to come down with pertussis, known as whooping cough, with a worst-in-the-nation rate of 33.16 per 100,000 population, as opposed to 4.13 for the country as a whole.
The experiment is not working. It’s not enough to simply educate and encourage parents to do the right thing. Maine legislators should pass L.D. 798, and allow only medically necessary exemptions from the law that requires children entering school to be up to date on their immunizations.
The debate over vaccinations that took place in Maine this winter has shown the limited value of debate when people are dug into their positions.
On one side, you had more than a century of experience and the overwhelming consensus of scientific research, which establishes the low risk and high reward of preventing sometimes deadly, communicable diseases from spreading through a community.
On the other, you had a social movement fueled by anecdote, unprovable suspicions and vague ideas about individual liberty, wrapped up in a total rejection of all contrary information, no matter how reliable the source.
And the state Republican Party decided to treat this public health problem as a political opportunity, and contributed to the anti-vaccine conspiracy theories by using social media to promote a baseless claim that immigrants from other countries were bringing diseases to Maine. All five Republicans on the Education Committee voted against the bill, setting up a partisan showdown when the legislation hits the floor of the House and Senate.
Low vaccination rates are dangerous to the public health because they give disease an opportunity to take hold in a community. Some people will get a disease like chickenpox or measles and recover no worse for wear. But people with compromised immune systems who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons could die as the illness makes its rounds They are protected from infection only if most of the people they come into contact with have been vaccinated, a concept known as herd immunity.
This is the opinion of health experts around the world, but if you listened to the debate in the Maine State House, you might think it was a hoax by Big Pharma to strike it rich by catering to people’s fears. And you would have to believe that every research institute, public health agency and medical association is in on it.
Vaccines have been blamed for autism, for sudden infant death syndrome and for spreading the very diseases they are meant to address. None of those theories can stand up to research, but people continue to push them.
Requiring schoolchildren to be vaccinated is called a violation of religious liberty, but it is not. No one’s religious beliefs should interfere with another person’s health and safety. Children with suppressed immune systems also have a right to attend school, no matter what philosophical beliefs other children’s parents hold.
Maine’s lax vaccination rules are putting Maine people at risk of preventable diseases, and if you don’t believe us, listen to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Maine Public Health Association, the Maine Medical Association, the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Maine Association of Nurse Practitioners, the Maine Association of School Nurses, The Maine School Management Association, the Maine Children’s Alliance and dozens of other organizations concerned with the health and safety of children and families.
Spreading the word and hoping that people do the right thing is not working. This debate has not changed any minds. If anything, it has hardened the positions of those who believe that they know more than all the experts and that they are entitled to put other people’s health at risk.
The scientific debate is over, and the political debate should be over, too. Lawmakers should pass L.D. 798.