BRUNSWICK — With the recent news (“Pertussis cases spike in Maine, hit schools in Cumberland, Yarmouth,” April 12) surrounding disturbing upticks in pertussis (better known as whooping cough) in the state, the debate over whether or not to vaccinate children has once again sparked heated discussions among factions on both sides.

Some opponents of inoculation cite a now-debunked British study linking vaccines with autism, while many in favor raise concerns about the risks that unvaccinated children pose in densely populated areas such as schools. Widespread outbreaks of pertussis, which had been on its way to being eradicated here in the U.S., are on the rise in Maine, and that is causing unrest in many communities.

According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 332 cases of pertussis in Maine in 2013. In 2014, there were 557 cases, and in 2015, the last year reported, 281 cases were diagnosed.

However, it was in 2012, during the worst national pertussis outbreak in over 50 years, that the state saw the greatest uptick – more than tripling to 737 cases. A factor in this increase is that the vaccine’s effectiveness wanes three to six years after the shots are administered, making a middle school booster shot critical to maintaining immunity.

But Maine was one of the last states to require the second dose of the vaccine. And with the fears surrounding vaccinations and autism, some parents are wary of overvaccinating their children; this, in turn, makes communities like Yarmouth and Cumberland susceptible. We take for granted the availability of vaccines today that make it easy to protect our children, but that was not always the case.

Not long ago, parents helplessly watched their children die of diseases we now have cures for – typhoid, scarlet fever, pertussis, tuberculosis and diphtheria. At that time, diphtheria took the lives of thousands of young victims every year well into the late 19th century – an astonishing 11.5 percent of the population.

Just a few miles north of Cumberland and Yarmouth, Brunswick witnessed the horrific deaths of over 20 French-Canadian children whose parents and siblings toiled for meager wages at the Cabot textile mill in 1886. Crowded conditions in the tenements cluttering the east side of town became a breeding ground for one of the deadliest outbreaks in the town’s history.

With over 170 diphtheria cases reported between April and September that year, Brunswick Telegraph editor Albert Tenney, with the help of a local Franco-American doctor, implored state and local authorities to declare the outbreak an epidemic and force the mill owners to make changes. Through a series of passionate weekly editorials, Tenney embarked upon a campaign to draw attention to what was happening in the mill’s company housing. It took the deaths of 22 children from diphtheria for the medical community to act.

Living conditions around the mill were dismal at best. Buildings were often two to three stories high, divided into eight tenements housing about 12 people each. With the average French family numbering 10 or more, and with two or three families sharing that single space, tenements were often crowded.

Buildings were clustered tightly together with animal sheds and privies nearby. The four privies per building were cleaned once a year. It was estimated that there were about 500 people every square acre. It’s hard to imagine that many people in one small area.

While the situation in Brunswick was extreme, its incubator-like environment is not unlike schools today, where many children are in close contact with each other, spreading germs and disease with every doorknob they touch and every crayon they share.

For those Brunswick families who lost children to diphtheria in 1886, as well as to whooping cough, typhoid fever, measles and consumption, having proper health care and vaccines could have saved 45 lives. As we ponder what happened in the Cabot mill’s company housing, we should not only study the facts of the case from a historical lens, but also learn from it from a medical point of view.

The debate about vaccinations will continue, but we should not let our views about freedom of choice, risk of overvaccinating or autism cloud our judgment about what is right for our children. Before the age of vaccines, thousands of children suffered premature deaths and crippling scars.

Do we want to expose our children to diseases that can be now easily prevented? More than a century ago, parents did not have that choice. Let’s make sure we do the right thing for the right reasons to ensure our children have the best chance in life to thrive.