BRUNSWICK, Maine — One of the most difficult things Dr. Lawrence Losey encounters when urging reluctant parents about immunizing their children, ironically, is that the vaccines work too well.
Losey, who recently was named Maine’s first Childhood Immunization Champion by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, said some parents argue that the instances of diseases such as polio and meningitis are so rare the danger is negligible. Not true, said Losey.
“I have seen kids die from these things, quite literally,” he said.
In the 1980s, Losey had a young patient who was outside playing with friends on a Saturday morning, struck a fever at 3 p.m. and was dead by sunrise on Sunday. The culprit: meningitis.
Maine is one of 21 states in the nation that allows a “philosophical exemption” for parents unwilling to have their children vaccinated. Though nearly all parents in Maine allow the vaccination, Losey said he is troubled by the fact that the percentage of people using the philosophical exemption tripled between 2000 and 2010, from 0.5 percent to about 1.5 percent.
The actual numbers of exemptions were not available Monday.
In the early 1990s, Maine was in the top five states in the nation for its vaccination rates, but has slid to 31st since then.
Even though vaccination rates are high and instances of preventable contagious diseases is low, Losey said the danger is an illness traveling into the country from another part of the world where vaccination rates are much lower.
“The point on this is that vaccines just unquestionably are one of the most lifesaving measures we can have, ranking up there with sewer disposal and clean water,” he said. “We’re trying to get immunization rates in toddlers where they need to be. If you wait until age 5 or after, much of the risk [of diseases] is gone.”
Losey began his medical career as a pediatric resident at Maine Medical Center in Portland in 1979. In the 1990s, he spearheaded efforts to assess a fee to private insurance companies to help cover the cost of immunizations for Maine children. More recently, he became a founding member of the Maine Vaccine Board, which the Legislature created in 2010 after several years of development by Losey and others. Part of the result of their effort is that as of Jan. 1 of this year, all Maine children ages 18 and under are vaccinated at no cost to their parents, physicians or state government.
“Before that, I had to do what I call a wallet biopsy before I could administer vaccines,” he said. “It was a very difficult and cumbersome system.”
Losey, who has published dozens of articles on pediatrics and helped launch “Medical Minutes,” which airs regularly on Portland-area radio stations, estimates the cost of vaccinating a person from birth to age 18 is at least $2,600. The new immunization program depends on a fee assessed to insurance companies each month and allows the Maine Center for Disease Control to purchase vaccines en masse at an overall savings of about 25 percent, said Losey.
Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine CDC, praised Losey’s work.
“We are fortunate to have someone of Dr. Losey’s caliber championing the causes of Maine’s children,” she said in a press release. “His passion to ensure that all Maine children are properly protected against diseases is both admirable and inspiring.”
Randee Reynolds, interim president at Parkview Adventist Medical Center, echoed that sentiment.
“His energy and passion toward ensuring that all children in Maine are fully immunized has truly been inspirational, and he has served as an excellent leader and role model to us all,” said Reynolds.
U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe also piled on the praise.
“This tremendous accolade speaks volumes of his extraordinary work to ensure that children throughout Maine are protected from vaccine-preventable illnesses,” said Snowe in a press release. “Maine could not be more fortunate to have such an exceptional and dedicated individual working in the critical field of immunization.”
Losey said a challenge he faces on a regular basis regarding vaccines is perceptions among some that the vaccines have dangerous side effects. Those views are fueled by what he characterized as organizations appearing to be authoritative but that go against virtually every credible medical study that has been done on the subject.
Losey said his dream is for Maine to fully develop a computerized database that tracks every child’s vaccination schedule — a project already in the works. About 70 percent of vaccination records now are entered into a database known as IMPACT, but Losey said he hopes that rate will reach 100 percent soon.
Another dream he has is that every parent would agree to have their children vaccinated.
“There are several groups of vaccine-reluctant people, including people who don’t buy into any use of the medical care system,” he said. “Another reason is parents don’t want to see their dear, sweet little baby getting all those shots. That’s hard for some parents to see.”
There has been progress on that front as well. Losey said pharmaceutical companies have begun combining some vaccines into fewer shots. As for any harm vaccines may cause, Losey said none of them compares even remotely with the danger of a deadly disease.
“When it comes to vaccines, it’s more stressful to the immune system to walk into a meadow in June,” he said.