We have a shared concern: As a pediatrician and a state legislator, the health of our youngest community members is of paramount importance. The current and future success of our state depends on children getting a healthy start in life. 

A bill currently before the Maine Legislature, LD 798, would require all children to be adequately immunized before entering public school, with exceptions only for certain medical conditions. At a recent public hearing for this bill, hundreds of people — experts, advocates and everyday Mainers — came to the State House to share their insight and opinions. One of the greatest takeaways from the testimony shared was that we need to make sure our understanding of what qualifies patients for a medical exemption is up-to-date with the latest, best science available. This is something that can and should be explored further as we go through the legislative process. 

But for now, we thought it would be best to address concerns around the safety and efficacy of immunizations. 

To protect a community from spread of highly infectious diseases such as pertussis (also known as whooping cough) and measles, a community-wide immunization rate of more than 95 percent is needed. Of Maine’s 16 counties, five are below that threshold for kindergarten students and eight are below that threshold for seventh-graders. For the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, seven Maine counties are below the critical 95 percent threshold. 

The World Health Organization recently listed immunization hesitancy as one of the 10 leading threats to global health. Maine’s immunization rate has fallen over the last 25 years from being one of the best in the nation to middling or worse. Maine is one of only 17 states that allows children to enter school even if parents decline to immunize children because of personal choice. This results in pockets where there are many children, particularly entering kindergarten, who are not immunized or under-immunized. With these pockets comes a significant increase the the likelihood of disease outbreaks. In 2017, Maine saw its first case of measles in more than 20 years. So far this year, there are more than 200 confirmed measles cases in three separate outbreaks; just a few years ago, there were well under 75 cases annually in the whole U.S. 

Vaccine hesitancy has a long history, going back to the late 1700s when the smallpox vaccine was first introduced. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin reflects on how he did not allow his son to be immunized because he worried about the procedure’s safety. When his son died of the disease, Franklin was devastated and reproached himself for not having his son immunized. 

In the last 50 years, there have been more concerns about vaccines — most recently, fears that autism is caused by thimersol, a mercury-based preservative, and by the MMR vaccine. Both of these claims have been extensively studied and found to be unsupported. Additionally, mercury has been removed from all children’s recommended immunizations except for multiple-dose vials of the flu vaccine. The concern about the MMR vaccine has a long, sad tale. It all started with an article published in England in 1998 linking the vaccine to autism. Multiple studies tried to replicate the author’s findings, but all failed to do so. Even worse: the author lost his medical license because of many problems in how the study was conducted, and the medical journal ultimately retracted the article. Still, this concern based on bad science persists. 

There is also concern about immunization ingredients that aid in stability and enhance effectiveness. These are added in small quantities to assure that the vaccine is effective, safe, and can be reliably stored until administration. 

Why do we belabor these points? Immunizations are safe, and they work. There has been a dramatic decline in life-threatening childhood diseases because of immunizations. With the introduction of immunizations for the most common types of meningitis, cases of this life-threatening illness have dropped by more than 90 percent. We have not seen anyone in our community with acute polio since we were toddlers; there have been no transmitted cases in the U.S. since 1979. And no chickenpox-related infant deaths have been reported in our community in some 20 years thanks to that immunization. 

This is why we strongly support LD 798. If this bill is passed, Maine would be able to surpass the 95 percent level of community immunity needed to control the spread of highly infectious preventable disease such as measles, chickenpox and pertussis. There is no reason for our children or their parents to worry about contracting the same life-threatening, serious illnesses we faced decades ago when there is a proven, safe method of prevention. 

Brownie Carson represents the good people of Senate District 24, which includes the communities of Brunswick, Freeport, North Yarmouth, Pownal and his hometown of Harpswell. Larry Losey is a Harpswell resident  pediatrician who has practiced in Brunswick since 1979. 

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