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Journal Tribune
Posted
Updated June 11, 2019
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Pertussis cases continue to increase in Maine

Pertussis is a persistent public health problem in Maine, as the state has the worst per-capita pertussis rate in the nation. Maine’s pertussis rate of 33.16 per 100,000 in 2018 was more than eight times the national average. Maine had 446 pertussis cases in 2018, but 2019 could eclipse last year, which was the worst year for pertussis since 2012.

Recent outbreaks have occurred at Portland schools in May, as well as earlier this year at Falmouth High School and Thornton Academy in Saco.

Schools have been the source of many outbreaks this year, and 51 percent of all cases in 2019 – 106 of the 208 cases – have occurred in those between the ages of 11-19.

Pertussis – also known as whooping cough – is a bacterial infection that causes a violent cough that can trigger vomiting and exhaustion. Babies too young to be vaccinated and the elderly are especially vulnerable to serious cases, which may require hospitalization and can lead to death. The cough can persist for up to 10 weeks and is treated with antibiotics.

The pertussis vaccine’s effectiveness wanes, which is why pediatricians recommend a booster shot in middle school. Though Maine now requires the booster for incoming seventh-graders, it was among the last states in the nation to add the middle school booster, in 2017-18.

Maine is especially vulnerable to the return of infectious diseases like pertussis, public health experts have said, because of the state’s dangerously low levels of immunization rates in schools. Maine has consistently been among the worst in the nation for parents forgoing vaccines for non-medical reasons for students entering kindergarten, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Maine lawmakers passed a bill this spring and Gov. Janet Mills signed into law a measure that, starting in 2021, would eliminate philosophic and religious exemptions to school-required vaccines. Maine had 5.6 percent of parents signing philosophic or religious exemptions to vaccines for children entering kindergarten in 2018-19, according to the Maine CDC. Forty-three elementary schools had 15 percent or higher non-medical opt-out rates, putting those schools at increased risk of infectious disease outbreaks.

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