Sadly, Maine is seeing an increase in preventable childhood illnesses. This week, the news was about chickenpox. Last year, it was whooping cough. Outbreaks of these diseases can be averted or minimized with vaccinations.
Maine has seen twice as many cases of chickenpox this school year than it did last year. State officials say more than two-thirds of the infections were among children who were not vaccinated or were undervaccinated.
From September 2014 through mid-May 2015, 84 cases of the highly contagious virus were reported in children, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. During the same period last school year there were 44 cases.
Chickenpox cases have been reported in every county except Washington.
Sixty-eight percent of the infections were in children who were not vaccinated at all or had not received the recommended two doses of the vaccine. Four of the children were too young to be vaccinated, highlighting the dangers of diminishing herd immunity. Some people, for health reasons or their age, are not able to be vaccinated. They are protected when a large enough percentage of the population is vaccinated against diseases — a concept known as herd immunity. For some illnesses, more than 90 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated for herd immunity to be effective.
But federal data show the percentage of Maine parents choosing to skip their children’s vaccines is on the rise. Maine’s vaccination opt-out rate was the fourth highest in the nation during the 2013-2014 school year.
Without an exemption, kindergarten students in Maine must be vaccinated against pertussis, diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, polio and chickenpox.
But the problem lies with those exemptions. Maine is among 18 states that allow parents to exempt their children from school-required immunizations for philosophical reasons. Children can also be exempted from the requirements for medical and religious reasons, although these account for a small fraction of Maine’s opt-outs. Mississippi and West Virginia are the only states that don’t allow exemptions for religious or philosophical reasons. Mississippi, not coincidentally, had the highest kindergarten vaccination rate in the country in 2012-13, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Late last month, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a law doing away with that state’s vaccine philosophical exemption. “Vaccines work, and parents should get their kids vaccinated,” Shumlin said in a statement. “We’re not where we need to be to protect our kids from dangerous diseases, and I hope this legislation will have the effect of increasing vaccination rates.”
Washington and California are also considering eliminating their vaccine exemptions for philosophical reasons. Maine lawmakers had a similar opportunity this year. Unfortunately, they rejected LD 606, sponsored by Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick, which would have done away with the philosophical exemption.
As evidence builds that Maine needs to strengthen its vaccination laws, Maine’s children can’t afford for lawmakers to continue to drag their feet and reject common-sense legislation that protects the public good.