When I open the newspaper, the recent headlines have filled me with dread: “Measles exposure at two medical offices in Maine,” “CDC confirms York High School mumps case” and “As lawmakers debate stricter vaccination rules, Falmouth High has pertussis outbreak.” It is because of the frequency of stories like these that I am imploring the Legislature to support LD 798, An Act to Protect Maine Children and Students from Preventable Diseases by Repealing Certain Exemptions from the Laws Governing Immunization Requirements. My family is at risk because of the weakening of community immunity due to vaccine hesitancy.
I am the proud mother of three amazing children, a 5-year-old who will be in kindergarten in the fall, and twin 2-year-olds who will be starting preschool in the summer. My husband is an extraordinary third-grade teacher at an elementary school in Maine. He is valued, respected and dedicated to making the world a better place for all of our children. When at work he comes into contact with kids, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, every day.
Beyond the risks all teachers have, there are some complicating factors unique to our household that make us especially nervous about our exposure. My husband has multiple sclerosis (known as MS), an autoimmune disorder. To deal with the risks to his life and mobility he takes medication in the hopes of preventing further relapses. His neurologist recommends no live vaccines — such as the measles vaccine — because these can initiate a relapse in his MS.
Since he is immunocompromised, his ability to mount an immune response, from a vaccine to infectious diseases such as measles is limited. Although he was vaccinated as a child, he cannot have a booster as an adult and is no longer immune from these diseases. This means that in order to do his job, which he is so passionate about, he needs to work every day in close contact with children who may or may not be vaccinated against dangerous diseases for which he cannot be vaccinated.
In addition to our concerns about the risks to his health, we also worry about our family and the possible risks to our young children. When I was pregnant with my eldest, there was a pertussis (whooping cough) outbreak at my husband’s school. When my twins were newborns, there were incidents of chicken pox at the school. In both instances, there was no way of knowing if my husband was bringing infectious diseases home with him, since most are contagious before symptoms even begin. While my children were too young to be vaccinated, we had many sleepless nights worrying about their risk of exposure when they were most vulnerable.
Once the twins were old enough, we asked our pediatrician to alter the vaccine schedule slightly so that we could vaccinate them against measles earlier. With outbreaks of measles popping up then and now, we feel safer knowing our whole family benefits from this choice. Nonetheless, we still live with the worry that measles could be an occupational hazard for my husband. This does not need to be the case, and it should not be the case.
My family is one of many that benefit from the protection provided by vaccines. Thanks to vaccines, I rest knowing my children will likely never need an iron lung or be disabled by polio, be deafened by measles, be paralyzed by tetanus, be scarred by chicken pox, or suffer a far worse fate from a preventable illness. Vaccines work so well that many of us have no personal experience with the dangers associated with diseases we can now prevent.
I am thankful for the freedom offered by amazing medical and scientific breakthroughs that makes modern society, with our closely intertwined lives, possible. However, if we all want to benefit from these advances, we all need to participate. That is why I am encouraging my legislators to ensure the safety net provided by vaccines is upheld and not taken for granted. Please pass this bill.
Heather Abbott of Yarmouth is a stay-at-home mom.