I’ve been thinking a lot lately about immunizations. Actually, as a doctor and one of our state’s former epidemiologists, the health of Mainers is often on my mind. And I’m concerned for a number of reasons.

Ben Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I wish we could heed his sage advice, but it seems our state may be forgetting his words of wisdom.

I became a physician specializing in infectious diseases over 30 years ago. Over those 30 years, I learned that Ben was correct – preventing diseases is much better than treating them. Prevention can save lives and keep us all healthier. Over my career, I have seen children die from diseases like meningitis that could have been prevented, and I have seen many other children and families devastated by vaccine-preventable diseases.

Unfortunately, not enough children in our state are fully immunized and therefore are at risk for diseases that are uncomfortable at best, and deadly at worst.

These include diseases such as measles, which in the most recent outbreak, spread across the country in rapid time.

But it’s not just measles. Mumps and pertussis (whooping cough) have made a comeback, too.

And there have been outbreaks of meningitis at college campuses from coast to coast – the most recent one infected six students, killing one.

The frustrating thing is that these diseases are all preventable – all you need to do is get vaccinated for them. Our state is now in the middle of a debate over immunizations, and I am concerned we are going to forget the lessons of history.

Most people have never seen someone so physically crippled from polio that they can breathe only with the help of an iron lung. Before the polio vaccine, America suffered its worst disease outbreak in our history with nearly 60,000 cases. Thousands died from polio. Heartbreakingly, most of those affected were children.

Today, ninety-nine percent of polio has been eradicated – an incredible testament to the vaccine.

But even these successes are at risk. Polio has re-emerged in Syria and continues in other parts of Asia and Africa because of immunization programs that have stopped, and public health systems that have failed.

This is the lesson of immunizations.

They work only when we can make sure that those at risk get vaccinated. When vaccination coverage declines or stops, diseases we have prevented begin to return.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a routine regimen of immunizations for all children.

Most states require school-aged children to follow all of the CDC’s guidelines if they want to attend public school.

They do that for several reasons. The first is obvious – they want everyone to be as protected as possible from infectious diseases.

Another reason is to protect those who can’t be immunized because their immune systems are compromised – for instance, they may have leukemia or some other medical condition.

One of the vaccines the CDC recommends is the meningitis vaccine.

Meningitis is a frightening disease that can be mistaken for flu at the beginning. But within hours, patients can lose use of their arms and legs, and suffer brain damage or hearing loss. Ten percent to 15 percent die.

A small number of states, including Maine, do not require children to have the meningitis vaccine. But they should. Maine should. There’s legislation pending at the State House, L.D. 473, which would require children in Maine to do what the CDC advises.

Walk a mile in the shoes of a mother or father who has buried their child because of this horrible disease and you’ll know why it’s so important to require the immunization.

Another bill in the Legislature that seeks to improve the vaccine coverage of Mainers is one that eliminates the exemption because of philosophical objections. Legislators should pass it.

We are fortunate today in that we now have safe and effective vaccines for several diseases.

We can prevent meningitis, we can prevent hepatitis, we can prevent measles, and the list goes on. But we cannot prevent these diseases unless we vaccinate.

Immunizations are a medical gift. The best gift we can give our children, and the children of tomorrow, is to implement sound public health policy to take advantage of all these medical advances.

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