Vaccinations fall under the purview of public health. The purpose of public health is to promote and protect the health and safety of populations. It is thanks to public health that we know lead exposure is harmful, artificial trans fats are bad for our health, and that nicotine is addictive and a leading risk factor for lung cancer. Because of public health, we no longer allow lead in gasoline or paint, trans fats in restaurants or food products, and smoking in public places.
Why is the science behind these health-protecting advancements different from that of vaccines? The answer is that it is not. Decades of data overwhelmingly tell us that vaccines are safe, and necessary for protecting public health. States, cities, and towns with lower vaccination rates can have higher rates of life-threatening diseases.
Herd immunity is quickly and dramatically weakened with even small decreases in vaccination rates. Herd immunity is particularly important for children under 2 years of age, and those with weakened immune systems – such as those with auto-immune diseases, type 1 diabetes, or cancer. These people rely on herd immunity to keep them safe from infectious diseases, even if they themselves have been vaccinated. Measles, for example, is highly contagious; the virus can live in a room for up to two hours after an infected person has left. The more people that are vaccinated against viruses like measles, the harder it is for it to spread.
Exercising a choice to not vaccinate a child is dangerous. It is a choice that jeopardizes the health of the child, and also other children and their families. For example, measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, but with the decreases in immunizations, this once-gone disease is now making a comeback. Already this year, there have been more than 206 confirmed cases in the U.S. In January, Washington state declared a state of emergency because of a measles outbreak.
Vaccine hesitancy due to false information and myths has grown so large, that the World Health Organization listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019.
In 2017-18, Maine had the seventh highest non-medical vaccine exemption rate in the country at 5 percent. In other words, 1 in 20, or about one student per classroom, is unvaccinated for non-medical reasons, putting the rest of the classroom and community at risk. Given the current fragile state of Maine’s public health system, it would not take a significant measles outbreak to become a full-blown epidemic.
In 2009, when we had an H1N1 pandemic, Maine’s public health staff were able to rapidly mobilize vaccine clinics statewide. But we are less prepared today than we were 10 years ago: the public health nursing workforce is being rebuilt, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention workforce is down by 25 percent, and the 27 Healthy Maine Partnerships — statewide health coalitions — have been dismantled.
Vaccines save lives, which is why the Maine Public Health Association strongly supports LD 798. This bill will end non-medical exemptions from childhood vaccinations required for school attendance. If a child has a medical reason to warrant opting out of vaccines, this bill still allows for that to happen.
Vaccines protect public health. Please do your part: vaccinate your children, and please join the public health community in supporting LD 798. The State of Maine Voter Information Lookup Service is helpful for identifying and contacting your elected officials.
Rebecca Boulos is executive director of the Maine Public Health Association. The mission of MPHA is to improve and sustain the health and well-being of all Maine residents through health promotion, disease prevention, and the advancement of health equity.