Maine’s top health official said Tuesday he supports legislation that would strengthen the state’s vaccine laws by making it more difficult for parents to opt out of immunizations required to attend school. A bill that would have done so failed in the Legislature this summer.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention had previously not taken a position on the bill, which would have required parents seeking philosophic exemptions to vaccinations to obtain the signature of a medical professional before opting out. Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the bill June 30, and the Maine House declined to override the veto by five votes. Currently, parents can forgo vaccines for their children by signing their name to a philosophic or religious exemption.
Kenneth Albert, director of the Maine CDC, told the Portland Press Herald after an appearance Tuesday at the University of Maine School of Law in Portland that he supports an “informed consent” bill like the one that LePage vetoed. “It’s a reasonable bill,” Albert said in a brief interview after giving a presentation to law school students. “The Legislature should consider it, and the administration should consider it as well.”
Health advocates have promised to resurrect the “informed consent” bill – sponsored by state Rep. Dr. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham – for the 2017 legislative session. The 2016 legislative session is a short session and it’s more difficult to bring back bills that failed during the previous year.
LePage vetoed the bill despite saying he was a strong supporter of vaccines and their benefits in preventing infectious diseases. In his veto message, LePage wrote that despite the benefits of vaccines, parents must have a choice to opt out.
PARENTS EXERCISING OPT-OUT RIGHTS
Dr. Christopher Pezzullo, who works for Albert as the Maine health officer and also appeared at Tuesday’s event, said vaccines do a great job of preventing disease, but parents ultimately must have the right to opt out.
However, Albert said the danger that unvaccinated children pose to the community is a compelling reason to pass laws that try to increase vaccination rates. Unvaccinated children endanger not only themselves, but also children too young to have received their vaccines, and immunity-compromised patients such as children with leukemia and the elderly, health experts say.
Vaccines prevent many infectious diseases that decades ago would sicken millions, including polio, measles, chicken pox, mumps and pertussis.
Schoolchildren in Maine have one of the highest vaccine opt-out rates in the country – fifth-highest during the 2013-14 school year and eighth-highest for 2014-15. Maine’s voluntary opt-out rate of 3.9 percent in 2014-15 is still more than twice the national average, despite some improvement.
“We still have a long way to go,” Albert said.
States that make it more difficult to opt out of vaccines have better vaccination rates than states like Maine that give parents more leeway, studies have shown.
The vaccination debate became national news after hundreds were sickened in 2014 during a measles outbreak originating at Disneyland in California. As a result, California approved a law banning all non-medical opt-outs to vaccines.
Numerous studies have proven that vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective. Some parents, however, continue to fear that the vaccines cause autism or other health issues. A 1990s study that linked autism with vaccines has been debunked and retracted, and hundreds of other studies have not shown a link to autism.
Anti-vaccine advocates say parents should be able to choose to not vaccinate their children, and that forcing parents to get a sign-off from a doctor is infringing on parental rights.
BILL’S CHANCES TO BECOME LAW IMPROVE
Rep. Sanborn’s bill became the subject of an impassioned debate, with one legislator, Rep. David Sawicki, R-Auburn, comparing vaccination requirements to the “horrors of Nazi Germany.”
Sanborn said Tuesday she was surprised to hear that Albert supports the bill, since she was never able to get a commitment from the Maine CDC when she lobbied for the bill last year. The CDC was in transition in 2015, with Albert taking over for Dr. Sheila Pinette in February.
Sanborn said she met with Pinette, who was noncommittal on the bill.
“I think it bodes very well for the future of the bill,” Sanborn said of Albert’s support. “We had basically the whole medical community behind my bill, but after it failed, we had to take a step back and regroup.”
Dr. Dora Anne Mills, former Maine CDC director and a vice president of clinical affairs at the University of New England, said Albert’s support is a positive sign for future bills.
“It’s exciting and a good sign that the bill may not be vetoed next time,” Mills said.