For some unknown reason, I’ve always liked visiting cemeteries. I’m not quite sure why, but walking through a graveyard always brings me a certain peace. I feel a spiritual connection with people who lived many years ago (or very recently depending on the chronology). I imagine their lives, their stories, what life was like during those long-ago times. It never gets old but there’s one thing that always brings sadness on these visits.
Graveyards are the final resting place of many babies and children who died far too young. The dates on the headstones speak volumes. Having experienced the loss of my 10-day old granddaughter in 2007, I feel a kinship with those parents and family members from so many years ago who also lived through the unbearable pain of losing a child. No one should have to bury their child.
A major decision faces Maine voters on March 3. In its last session, the Maine Legislature eliminated religious and philosophical exemptions to mandatory school vaccinations. The Legislature acted prudently, responsibly and in accordance with all nationally and internationally recognized public health norms in passing this bill.
According to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (and as reported in the Bangor Daily News last year), the share of kindergartners vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella dropped from 94.3 percent in 2017-18 to 93.8 percent statewide in the 2018-19 school year. The share of Maine kindergarten students citing nonmedical exemptions from vaccine requirements rose from 5 percent to 5.6 percent while the U.S. average was 2 percent the 2017-18 school year. Only six states had higher kindergarten opt-out rates than Maine. Maine had its first case of measles in 20 years in 2017.
The alarm bells had sounded, the Legislature wisely took action and Gov. Janet Mills concurred by signing this bill.
When vaccine rates fall below 95 percent for measles, mumps and rubella (as they have in Maine), the “herd immunity” of the population is not high enough to prevent transmission of these highly contagious diseases. Put another way, 95 of every 100 people have to get the vaccine to prevent the disease.
I’ve been a veterinarian for over 40 years and for 17 years I served as the State Veterinarian for Maine. I therefore am very familiar the concept of “herd immunity” in animals. Much of my career was spent advising farmers on disease prevention strategies, advocating for responsible animal health practices and maintaining herd health and welfare. Vaccines make good sense to farmers. They protect animal health and welfare by preventing devastating diseases and consequently enhance production and profitability. For most farmers, it’s a no brainer.
I fervently believe that this should be a no-brainer as well for Maine parents. Childhood vaccines prevent illness and death in our youngest and most vulnerable populations. They are safe. They are effective and unless there is a medical reason to not administer them (as verified by a licensed family physician), all school children in Maine should receive these life-saving vaccines.
Maine’s new law is not government overreach or intrusion. If parents choose to not vaccinate their children, they do have a choice — home schooling.
Children’s author Roald Dahl (“James and the Giant Peach” and “The BFG”) lost his 7-year old daughter, Olivia, to measles in 1962 at a time when an effective vaccine for measles had not yet been developed. In a poignant letter he wrote in 1986 about Olivia’s death, Dahl stated, “It really is almost a crime to allow your child to go unimmunized.”
I’m the grandfather to eight wonderful kids and it scares and infuriates me to think that my grandchildren could be unnecessarily and unwittingly exposed to deadly diseases like measles, mumps and rubella due to the irresponsible and dangerous inaction of parents who refuse to believe in the lifesaving power of vaccines and who refuse to act in the best interests of the “herd.”
Please vote NO on Question 1 on March 3. Do the right thing for all our kids and for Maine’s future. None of us wants to see any additional gravestones in Maine’s cemeteries commemorating children whose deaths could have been prevented.
Donald E. Hoenig of Belfast is the former State Veterinarian for Maine.