Vaccination rates have jumped upward in Maine, possibly a positive sign that parents here are beginning to better understand the risks of not immunizing their children. One year’s data do not make a trend, but this is encouraging news.

Maine ranked first in the nation for toddler vaccination rates in 2014, and the percentage of parents opting out of “mandatory” school immunization has dropped, according to new data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During the 2014-2015 school year, parents opted out of vaccines for 4.4 percent of Maine’s kindergarten students, ranking Maine 10th in the nation for vaccine opt-outs, the CDC data show.

That’s down from 5.2 percent the previous school year, when Maine had the fourth highest rate of parents rejecting vaccines. But it’s still much higher than the national average of 1.7 percent. Philosophical exemptions in Maine fell from 766 in 2012-13 to 504 during the last school year, according to the CDC report.

But that level still is too high, and it’s a sign the state still is too loose when it comes to requiring vaccinations among school-age children. Eliminating exemptions based solely on philosophical objections, which other states have done or are considering, would make the state requirement more effective.

Kindergarten students in Maine must be vaccinated against whooping cough, diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, polio and chickenpox.

Maine, though, is among 18 states that allow parents to exempt their children from school-required immunizations for philosophical reasons. And the vast majority of exemptions in Maine are for philosophical reasons, not medical or religious. During the last school year, 84 percent of exemptions for kindergarten students were for philosophical reasons, a spreadsheet from the Department of Health and Human Services shows. Ten percent were for religious reasons and 5 percent because of a medical condition.

Maine lawmakers have had the chance in recent years to tighten or eliminate the philosophical exemption, but they unwisely have refused. Meanwhile, Vermont did away with its philosophical exemption earlier this year. And Mississippi, which posted the highest kindergarten vaccination rate in the country in 2012-2013, has no philosophical or religious exemption.

This past school year, Maine had twice as many cases of chickenpox among schoolchildren than it did the year before. And state officials say more than two-thirds of the infections were among children who were not vaccinated or were undervaccinated.

Such outbreaks can be a persuasive reminder to parents of the value of vaccinations, which not only protect those who are inoculated but also those who cannot be for medical reasons. They also should serve as a reminder to state lawmakers that they need to revisit Maine’s vaccination exemptions.

The recent CDC data release shows that, in Maine, the toddler vaccine rate for measles increased 6.2 percentage points between 2013 and 2014, after a measles outbreak in California made national headlines. More than 97 percent of Maine toddlers received the MMR immunization in 2014, compared to 91.5 percent nationally.

And nearly 85 percent of Maine children ages 19 to 35 months completed a group of recommended vaccines that protect against whooping cough, polio, measles, bacterial meningitis, hepatitis B, chickenpox and pneumococcal disease, the report showed. Nationally, only 71.6 percent of children received all these vaccines.

Health officials says those with strong anti-vaccination views likely haven’t changed their minds, but parents who are persuadable are getting the message.

“These results are a cause for celebration and reflect an effective partnership that has been built across the state to address this important health issue,” Maine Center for Disease Control Director and Chief Operating Officer Kenneth Albert said Friday in a statement. “Our success can be attributed to the hard work of clinicians, partners, educators and funders who have collectively made the vaccination of Maine’s children a public health priority.”

While the decrease in unvaccinated children is good news, Maine’s opt-out rate still is too high, which shows much work remains to be done to spread the message of vaccination benefits, especially among school-age children.

In addition, it shows that when lawmakers again consider strengthening Maine’s vaccination requirements, they should eliminate the philosophical exemption.


The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...