July 19, 2019
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Maine’s high childhood vaccination opt-out rate should prompt law change

Gilliam Flaccus | AP
Gilliam Flaccus | AP
A sign prohibiting all children under 12 and unvaccinated adults stands at the entrance to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center on Friday in Vancouver, Washington. A measles outbreak near Portland has sickened dozens of people in Oregon and Washington state.

A weekend post on Twitter highlighted, likely inadvertently, the dangers of foregoing childhood immunizations. “My 3 year old is not vaccinated and there is currently a measles outbreak in my state. Any suggestions for precautions I can take to protect her would be very much appreciated,” a mother posted in a group called Vaccine Education Network: Natural Health Anti-Vaxx Community.

When the post was shared with a wider audience, the reaction was swift, and predictable.

If only there was some way of protecting children against diseases, many posters wondered, tongue in cheek.

Vaccinating your children, of course, is the best way to protect them from a variety of childhood diseases, including measles, which is currently spreading in Washington state. There are 35 confirmed cases in the state, where the governor has declared a state of emergency. Thirty of the cases are among individuals who have not received the measles vaccine, according to state health officials. Twenty-four of the cases involve children between ages 1 and 10.

Maine, like Washington, is among the states with a much higher than average percentage of children who are not vaccinated against common childhood diseases. The percentage of Maine kindergarteners who are not vaccinated against common childhood diseases because of an exemption is more than twice the national average and has risen in recent years. This is a serious cause for concern because disease outbreaks become more likely as fewer children receive the preventative immunizations.

It also points to the need for changes to Maine’s vaccine opt-out law, which is too lenient. Without an exemption, kindergarten students in Maine must be vaccinated against pertussis, diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, polio and chickenpox.

Maine law, however, allows parents to avoid vaccinating their children simply by saying they object to the immunizations. Maine is one of 18 states that allow this personal exemption. Exemptions are also allowed for religious reasons and for medical reasons.

Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, plans to soon introduce a bill eliminating Maine’s personal and religious vaccine exemptions. Such a change will better ensure the health and safety of Maine children and their families.

Maine’s 5.3 percent opt-out rate was more than double the national average of 2.2 percent in 2017-18, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Maine exemption rate rose from 5 percent during the prior school year.

These might seem like small, insignificant percentages, but for some vaccines, more than 95 percent of a population must be vaccinated in order to achieve what’s known as herd immunity, which protects those who are unable for medical reasons to be immunized against infectious diseases. When vaccination rates drop too low, children and adults with compromised immune systems are especially at risk of contracting diseases such as measles.

Because of Maine’s high opt-out rates, the state of Maine has seen an increase in preventable childhood illnesses in recent years. Maine has one of the highest rates of pertussis, a contagious respiratory disease better known as whooping cough, in the country. In 2015, Maine had twice as many cases of chickenpox than it did the previous year. State officials said more than two-thirds of the infections were among children who were not vaccinated or were undervaccinated.

California, 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 2017-18, according to the federal data.

California eliminated its “personal belief” exemption in 2015 following a measles outbreak there. California’s previous exemption covered both religious and philosophical objections. After the law was passed, the state’s opt-out rate dropped from 2.9 percent in 2013-14 to 0.7 in 2017-18.

Although fears persist about the dangers of vaccinations, the one study that purported a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination was debunked several years ago. Scientists further ruled out the last possibility of an autism-vaccination link, determining that immunizations didn’t even raise autism risks among children who are already at risk for the disorder. Importantly, scientists agree that vaccinations save lives.

That’s why the Legislature needs to again consider narrowing Maine’s exemption law.

 



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