An anti-vaccine group says it submitted more than 77,000 valid petition signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office on Wednesday, surpassing the threshold needed to place a “people’s veto” of a new vaccine law on the March ballot.

The Secretary of State’s Office will review the petitions over the next 30 days to verify that Mainers for Health and Parental Rights, which circulated the people’s veto petitions, has the signatures of at least 63,054 registered voters, the number needed to get on the ballot.

Three other attempts to get a people’s veto on the ballot to overturn recent measures failed to gain the necessary number of signatures, campaign organizers said.

One sought to upend the “death with dignity” law that allows doctors to prescribe life-ending medications for terminally ill people, another requires Medicaid and most insurance companies to cover abortion services, and the third prohibits the practice of conversion therapy on minors by licensed medical and mental health professionals.

Hundreds of organizers worked over the summer gathering petitions to try to overturn Maine’s new vaccine law, which passed the Legislature by a razor-thin margin this year and would go into effect in 2021. The law would require children attending school get their vaccines to prevent infectious diseases. Children who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons would be exempt.

Maine joins California, New York, West Virginia and Mississippi as the only states to eliminate all non-medical exemptions for school-required vaccines. New York eliminated religious exemptions this summer after a measles outbreak sickened more than 650 people since 2018, spread in largely unvaccinated areas.

Nationally, 1,241 measles cases have been reported in 2019, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the highest number of cases since 2000.

Vaccines have become a hot-button political issue in Maine, and hundreds of advocates jammed the halls of the State House in March for a hearing on the vaccine bill.

The people’s veto, if successful, would repeal the new law.

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Supporters of Mainers for Health and Parental Rights carry boxes of signed petitions to the Secretary of State’s Office on Wednesday in Augusta. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

Currently, Maine parents can forgo vaccines by signing a form opting out on religious or philosophic grounds. The new law would jettison all non-medical exemptions, requiring parents to get their children immunized before they could attend school.

Over the past several years, Maine has had one of the highest kindergarten opt-out rates in the country, and it also has the nation’s highest rate of pertussis, a serious but preventable respiratory disease.

“Over the last 12 weeks, we have talked to thousands of Mainers and we are confident the Maine people will veto this draconian law pushed through our Legislature by Big Pharma. It’s clear, the people of Maine will reject this law,” Cara Sacks, co-chair of Mainers for Health and Parental Rights, said in a written statement.

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Cara Sacks, co-chair of Mainers for Health and Parental Rights, speaks at a news conference about the state’s new vaccine law on Wednesday in Augusta. “It’s clear, the people of Maine will reject this law,” she said in a statement. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press 

The group asserts that if the people’s veto is unsuccessful, “thousands of Maine families who choose not to comply with this new law will be forced to homeschool or leave the state.”

David Boyer, a spokesman for Mainers for Health and Parental Rights, said the group is “not anti-vaccine,” but against “government-mandated vaccines.”

Vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective at preventing infectious diseases, such as measles, chickenpox and pertussis.

A 1998 British study that claimed vaccines are linked to autism has been debunked and retracted.

Research shows that in areas where vaccine coverage declines, the incidence of such diseases increases. Refusal to vaccinate has been blamed for recent measles outbreaks in New York, California and Washington state.

Maine’s pertussis rate of 33.16 per 100,000 people in 2018 was the highest in the nation, and eight times the national average, and researchers have said Maine’s low immunization rates are a contributing factor. Maine had 446 pertussis cases in 2018, and 302 cases through August of this year.

Public health advocates said they believe Maine voters – if the measure goes before them in March – would choose to to keep the new law that improves immunization rates. Those most at risk of getting the diseases are babies too young to be immunized, immune-compromised patients, such as children with leukemia, and the elderly.

“Vaccines are one of the most effective ways that parents can protect their children and help them to lead a healthy life,” said Caitlin Gilmet, a spokeswoman for Maine Families for Vaccines, a political action committee that will campaign against the people’s veto effort. “Improving Maine’s immunization rates helps to protect the entire community from preventable diseases. We trust that Maine voters will agree if vaccine opponents place a people’s veto on the March ballot.”

Maine’s rate of non-medical exemptions for kindergartners climbed to 5.6 percent in 2018-19, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Forty-three elementary schools had 15 percent or higher opt-out rates, putting those schools and surrounding communities most at risk for disease outbreaks.

“Measles, mumps, and pertussis are entirely preventable, and there’s no excuse for the outbreaks we’re seeing all over the world today,” Gilmet said. “Vaccines aren’t a political issue – they’re a public health priority.”

While the vaccine law’s opponents are looking ahead to a March vote, the battle is over – at least for now – for other groups that pursued people’s vetoes of the assisted death and abortion services bills.

“We came up short,” said Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, which organized the signature-gathering campaigns to overturn those bills.

Abortion rights supporters, however, cheered the defeat of the people’s veto campaign and hailed a new law that goes into effect Thursday that will enshrine certain abortion protections into law.

“(On Thursday) people in Maine who have decided to have an abortion will have better access to the care they need,” said Nicole Clegg, senior vice president of public affairs at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. “Mainers will be able to make medical decisions that are the best for them, and insurance companies and politicians cannot deny care.”

Maine was the 17th state to pass a law protecting youths from conversion therapy. The law takes effect Thursday.

“The voters of Maine have been quite clear on multiple occasions that they favor full equality for LGBTQ people,” said Matt Moonen, EqualityMaine’s executive director.” The failure of our opponents to gather enough signatures to force a referendum shows that Mainers stand with us on protecting our youth from this dangerous and discredited practice.”

 

 

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