Maine kids’ immunization rates decline

Posted March 09, 2009, at 8:12 p.m.

Maine’s compliance with federal childhood immunization recommendations continues to slide, leaving more youngsters at risk for potentially lethal illnesses such as polio, diphtheria and whooping cough.

The immunization rate is just one of a number of indicators of children’s well-being contained in a report slated for release at the State House this morning. The annual Maine KidsCount report compares year-to-year state data on poverty, education, and physical and mental health.

A national KidsCount report issued later in the spring ranks states according to their public policies that support the well-being of children. KidsCount is funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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According to the report due to be released today, Maine in 1996 led the nation in immunizing youngsters, boasting a compliance rate of 89 percent compared to the national average of 74 percent. But in 2006 and 2007, the most recent period for which data are available, Maine’s compliance dropped to just 72.9 percent while the national average rose to 77.4 percent.

In last year’s KidsCount, 75.7 percent of Maine children were found to have been immunized in 2005 and 2006 in compliance with federal recommendations, compared to a 77 percent national average.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Monday that declining vaccine rates reflect several factors, including a growing population of parents who fear that immunizations may be linked to autism and other neurological disorders — fears she said are founded on “misinformation.”

But the primary driver of the decline is economic, she said.

Mills said that in the 1990s the state received enough federal funding to purchase vaccines for all Maine children, even those with insurance coverage. The result was near-total compliance with federal recommendations.

In recent years, Mills said, federal funding has eroded while the number of recommended vaccines has increased along with the cost of those vaccines.

In 1985, Mills said, the cost of the seven immunizations recommended for children under 6 years old was $45. By 2007, the number of recommended vaccines had risen to 15, and the cost had jumped to $1,209. Over the same period, she noted, the number of children with no health insurance or limited coverage increased, making it harder for many parents to pick up the expense.

At this time, Mills said, Maine can afford to purchase vaccines only for children enrolled in Medicaid, those with no insurance that covers vaccines, and American Indian children. But Gov. John Baldacci’s proposed budget for the coming two years includes $2 million in state funds for vaccines, and Maine expects federal stimulus funds for the vaccine program as well.

“We expect sometime later this year to be able to provide more vaccines … to all children, regardless of health insurance status,” she said.

Other findings in the 2009 KidsCount report include backsliding in the areas of prenatal care, low birth-weight infants and premature births, as well as high numbers of children living in poverty.

According to Elinor Goldberg, president of the Maine Children’s Alliance, family income is closely correlated with children’s health and welfare.

“We’re very concerned that so many of Maine’s young children are growing up in poor and low-income families,” Goldberg said in a prepared statement.

“Poverty is one of the biggest factors in determining whether kids succeed in life, and it’s clear that some policy changes, particularly at the federal level, are overdue.”

On the bright side, the report shows that rates of juvenile smoking and drinking continue to decline, along with teen pregnancies, suicides and arrests.

The full 2009 Maine KidsCount report, including county-by-county data, is available online at www.mekids.org.

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