A bill that would create a new state program to investigate vaccine injury claims is being criticized by Maine public health experts as an unscientific scare tactic.

The bill, submitted this week by Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, would also require doctors to read a statement to patients letting them know they could be injured by a vaccine and how to seek legal relief if they are. In addition, the bill would include licensing penalties for doctors who make “coercive” statements to patients to convince them to be vaccinated.

Vaccine injuries are exceptionally rare, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, so rare that it’s “difficult to calculate.” Severe reactions, such as a significant infection, occur less than once in every 600,000 patients, according to the CDC.

“This is trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Dora Anne Mills, a former Maine CDC director who is now a vice president at the University of New England. “This is an anti-vaccine bill that is trying to scare people from getting vaccines, one of the most successful public health efforts of the past 100 years.”

Maine has one of the highest rates of parents using non-medical exemptions to forgo vaccines for children entering kindergarten. At 5.2 percent, it’s the fifth-highest in the nation, and public health experts say it’s putting Maine at risk for vaccine-preventable diseases.

Mills said numerous studies have proven that vaccines are overwhelmingly safe.

“To say anything else is like denying the Earth is round,” Mills said.

DISEASES NEARLY ERRADICATED

Decades ago, thousands fell ill with measles, polio and other diseases every year in the United States, but these diseases were nearly eradicated after vaccines were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Legislature will also consider vaccine bills promoted by public health advocates that would make it more difficult for parents to use the state’s philosophic exemption to opt out of immunizations.

All of the vaccine bills will go before the health and human services committee for a public hearing on May 11.

Philosophic grounds is the most often used exemption for the nearly 800 children who entered kindergarten without their required vaccinations, according to federal CDC records. One bill would eliminate the philosophic exemption, and another would require parents to consult with a health professional and obtain a signature in order to use the exemption.

Ginger Taylor, an activist who wrote the vaccine injury bill, said the other vaccine bills impinge on parental freedom, while her bill protects children.

“This is the best we could come up with to help Maine families,” said Taylor, of Brunswick, a vaccine skeptic who disputes government reports of vaccine safety.

She said the CDC is “no longer a trusted source on vaccine safety information.” Taylor said current law requires that all vaccine injury cases go before the federally-run Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. The program investigates the cases and pays financial settlements to families if a child has had adverse reactions to vaccines.

Taylor said her bill would not overly burden the state with investigations, but would require that cases be reviewed and referred to the federal program.

O’Connor said she believes vaccines can be dangerous, and that the bill protects people.

“I believe this is the right thing to do,” O’Connor said. She said she knows of children who have experienced adverse reactions to vaccines. “I believe parents should be educated and have a choice.”

The Maine CDC has not yet evaluated the bill and has no comment at this time, said John Martins, Maine CDC spokesman.

Dr. Andrew Tenenbaum, a South Portland pediatrician, said he gives thousands of vaccines every year, and in the nine years he has been in practice, has never seen an allergic reaction to a vaccine.

“Once every few years we’ll see a seizure,” said Tenenbaum, explaining that the seizure is a reaction to a fever a child might have after receiving a vaccine. “While scary for the parents, the child makes a full recovery from the seizure.”

Taylor’s bill would penalize doctors who use “coercive” methods to persuade patients to get vaccines. Taylor said “coercive” could mean “inappropriate pressure, threats or giving false information.”

But Tenenbaum said if the bill became law, doctors would be threatened with penalties simply for doing their job.

“Everything we do is trying to coerce patients to make decisions to make themselves healthier people,” Tenenbaum said.

Tenenbaum said his patients are made aware of vaccine risks.

“Nobody says that there aren’t any risks to vaccinating,” Tenenbaum said. “But the risk of not vaccinating is much greater. It’s a shame that we are seeing the return of preventable diseases like measles, mumps and pertussis.”

SURGE IN PERTUSSIS CASES

Maine has seen a surge in pertussis cases over the past few years – more than 400 in 2014 – and public health experts say it’s partly caused by fewer parents immunizing their children – the vaccine’s effectiveness also lessens in an immunized person over time.

While there have been no reported measles cases in Maine since the 1990s, an outbreak of measles at Disneyland in California is causing lawmakers to consider a bill that would eliminate philosophic exemptions in that state.

California and Maine are two of 20 states that permit parents to opt out for philosophic exemptions. Maine also permits parents to opt out for religious reasons.

Andrew MacLean, deputy executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association, which represents doctors, said they will likely oppose the vaccine injury bill and support the two bills restricting philosophic exemptions.

“Families should receive some clinical counseling and talk with professionals about the realistic risks and benefits before being able to claim a philosophic exemption,” MacLean said.

He said the consultation-requirement bill is more likely to be approved by the Legislature.

Rep. Ralph Tucker, D-Brunswick, sponsor of the bill that would eliminate the philosophic exemption, said that is the better option because it would increase vaccination rates.

“The exemption for philosophic reasons is meaningless,” Tucker said. “There’s no criteria for what philosophic means in this case.”

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @joelawlorph


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