The Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee endorsed a bill Wednesday that would eliminate all non-medical exemptions to school-required vaccines. The move comes as Maine and other states are grappling with outbreaks of diseases prevented by childhood vaccinations.

The bill – approved on a 8-5 party-line vote, with all Democrats voting in favor – will now go to the full state Legislature for floor votes.

“We have to come down on the side of the greater good,” said Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor and co-chair of the committee.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, and Sen. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham, would eliminate exemptions for vaccines based on philosophic or religious grounds, and require parents to get their children vaccinated against a list of diseases if they want to send them to public or public school or daycare.

If approved by the Democrat-majority House and Senate and signed by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, the new requirements would go into effect for the 2021-22 school year.

Some Maine schools have alarming rates of vaccination opt-outs, putting the state at risk of outbreaks of preventable diseases such as measles, chickenpox and pertussis. Forty-three Maine elementary schools had 15 percent or higher rates of unvaccinated kindergartners this school year, according to data released by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention last week.


Among the highest opt-out rates were Maine Coast Waldorf School in Freeport where 46 percent of kindergartners were unvaccinated, and Kennebunkport Consolidated School, where 33 percent were unvaccinated.

Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, answers questions from the education committee on Wednesday about his bill to eliminate philosophic and religious exemptions to vaccines required for school.

If the bill becomes law, parents could still forgo vaccinations for their children by obtaining a medical exemption, such as for children who are immune-system compromised and too ill to vaccinated.

Maine’s voluntary opt-out rate for kindergartners is among the worst in the nation, and increased from 5 percent in the 2017-18 school year to 5.6 percent in 2018-19, representing about 700 kindergartners.

Maine also has the nation’s highest rate of pertussis, which can be prevented by a school-required vaccine. The 446 pertussis cases in Maine in 2018 are eight times the national average.

In New York, public health officials are requiring measles vaccinations in Brooklyn after experiencing 285 cases since October. Nationwide, there have been 465 measles cases in 19 states since January, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measles had been considered all but wiped out in the U.S. by the early 2000s.

Sen. Brownie Carson, D-Harpswell, said at Wednesday’s committee meeting that his granddaughter had leukemia and was forced to stay out of school for a few months longer than she otherwise would have because vaccination rates were too low at her school.


“Getting all children vaccinated is about protecting children, all of them,” Carson said.

Children with compromised immune systems are among the most vulnerable to hospitalization or death if “herd immunity” declines and the diseases start circulating again. “Herd immunity” refers to protection offered those who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons because almost everyone else has been immunized. For some diseases, such as measles, herd immunity can start to wane if vaccination rates drop below 95 percent.

Myths about vaccines being dangerous persist despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they are safe and effective. Vaccines are not linked to autism, according to numerous studies, and a 1998 study that claimed a link has since been debunked and retracted.

Sen. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, asked whether vaccines can ‘shed,’ thus causing the disease that the vaccine is supposed to be preventing.

Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a Yarmouth pediatrician, said that most vaccines do not shed, because they don’t use live viruses that might cause an infection. But even vaccines that do use live viruses are extremely unlikely to cause the disease. For example, it is estimated there are 5 shedding cases for every 55 million doses of the chicken pox vaccine administered, Blaisdell said.

Before the chicken pox vaccine was introduced in the 1990s, about 4 million children contracted the disease annually, resulting in 10,000 hospitalizations. After the vaccine was introduced, chicken pox cases declined to 350,000 per year, according to the federal CDC, with about 1,700 hospitalizations.


Republicans on the committee also argued that the bill would trample on parental rights.

“This bill overrides body autonomy,” said Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta.

Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, said that the bill would discriminate against children whose parents choose not to vaccinate.

“We are segregating and marginalizing these children,” Sampson said. “This is bad legislation and I will not support it.”

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

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Twitter: joelawlorph




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