When I first began my career in nursing, many communicable and preventable diseases were still present in our community. I recall working at Maine Medical Center as a student in the NICU treating an infant who contracted meningitis. The infant suffered terribly and the parents could only watch and suffer as well. Once the vaccine came out, this disease thankfully became very rare.
My own daughter contracted varicella, or chickenpox. I had to miss several days of work to care for her. I was new to my job without much sick time, so this was stressful for our young family. My child was a healthy child but imagine what that is like for the family whose child has an underlying condition like eczema or a child on chemotherapy where the impact of the disease is even greater.
Most people are eager to receive vaccines that prevent very serious, life-threatening illnesses such as meningitis and chickenpox, as well as cancer. Over the last decade, however, we have seen a greater number of parents opting out of vaccinating their children for philosophical reasons. With increasing numbers of children unvaccinated, we are losing the benefit of “herd immunity.”
Herd immunity is the concept of protecting vulnerable children and adults unable to receive vaccines for medical reasons by vaccinating those around them. People like the newborn too young to receive vaccination, the adolescent on chemotherapy or the older adult with an immune disorder. It takes a high rate of community vaccination to provide the necessary herd immunity to protect our communities and the state as a whole. Even a small percentage decrease in the number of children vaccinated can increase our risk of an outbreak.
In Maine, our rates of whooping cough, or pertussis, are rising. In January of this year, the rate was more than twice the previous year’s rate. Pertussis takes its most serious toll on the very young who cannot be vaccinated until two months of age and those not eligible to receive the vaccine for medical reasons. In fact, this disease can be fatal to this population.
There is much misinformation shared on the internet, which can be confusing at best and dangerous at worst. Schools are now teaching our youth how to differentiate factual, scientific information and evidence from misinformation. We need to do the same when considering LD 798, which would end philosophical and medical exemptions. The facts clearly support the need for mandatory vaccination of all children in Maine. Of course, medical exemptions will be maintained, but eliminating religious and philosophical exemptions will keep children safe in school and community settings.
Right now, Maine has the seventh highest non-medical exemption rate in the country, putting us at greater risk for an outbreak. If we were to have a disease outbreak in Maine, we would be severely tested as our capacity to respond had been greatly reduced over the past decade. We are lucky here in Maine, we have the benefit of seeing what is happening in states like Washington with similar exemption rates. We have the ability to prevent this crisis from happening and we should take action.
We must remember that the vast majority of the population are in support of vaccinations. Most of these people show their support by vaccinating their children. They do so with the belief that their children will be protected from serious and sometimes fatal diseases. We owe it to them to make sure all children, except for those with medical exemptions, are vaccinated in order to sustain herd immunity and protect against disease outbreaks.
The time is now. Call your legislator and urge support of LD 798.
Patty Hamilton is the public health director for the city of Bangor.