AUGUSTA — The battle over Maine’s new vaccine law began in earnest Tuesday as groups for and against the March 3 referendum on whether to overturn it offered arguments in back-to-back State House news conferences.

The “Yes on 1 to Reject Big Pharma” campaign seeks to overturn the law, which eliminates philosophic and religious exemptions to vaccination requirements for schoolchildren. The group says the law amounts to “government overreach” because it eliminates a parent’s philosophic or religious right to choose not to have their children vaccinated against several diseases. The law still allows medical exemptions for immunizations otherwise required to attend school.

After the Legislature passed the law by one vote last year, opponents gathered enough signatures for a “people’s veto” question that will go to voters on March 3. A “yes” vote favors repealing the law, while a “no” vote favors retaining it. The law goes into effect in 2021.

Maine Families for Vaccines – urging “No on 1” – wants to retain the law. They say childhood vaccinations protect community health, prevent infectious disease outbreaks and reduce health risks safety for students and others with immune deficiencies, such as leukemia and others, that preclude them from being vaccinated.

Dr. Laura Blaisdell, co-chair of Maine Families for Vaccines, speaks during a news conference Tuesday at the Maine State House in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

So far, the “Yes on 1” group has swamped Maine Families for Vaccines in the fundraising race, raising $315,752 to the pro-vaccination group’s $58,097. So currently, the law’s opponents are in better position to advertise, purchase public opinion polling, hire staff and conduct other campaign activities.

Courtney Ampezzan, 38, of Brunswick – a supporter of the new vaccine law – said Tuesday that for her and others with compromised immune systems, the new law is a “matter of life and death.”

Ampezzan said she has a rare genetic disorder from birth – called WHIM syndrome – and can’t get vaccinated. She practices good hygiene and relies on herd immunity – the resistance to the spread of disease in a community where nearly everyone is vaccinated – to maintain her health.

“If my sister gets a cold, I get pneumonia,” said Ampezzan, who has been in and out of hospitals for much of her life. She said opponents who talk about the importance of parental choice ignore the consequences to others.

“Your choice should not trump my right to life,” Ampezzan said. “I am literally fighting for my life with this campaign.”

Vaccines are overwhelmingly safe, and have reduced the incidence of many diseases that used to be commonplace, such as measles, polio, chickenpox and pertussis. Maine’s low vaccination rates for those entering kindergarten have likely contributed to Maine’s worst-in-the-nation pertussis rates, infectious disease experts have said. There were 446 cases in 2018.

But critics say the law is an example of government interfering with people’s right to refuse school-required vaccines.

Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, said the new law is a “grotesque government overreach masquerading as public health.”

Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta, said that “red-blooded liberty lovers” should be against the measure.

“In Maine, we don’t have a vaccine issue, we have an issue with government telling us what to do with our bodies,” Fecteau said.

He contended that the “No on 1” campaign has resorted to “cheap fear-mongering.”

“This has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with authoritarianism,” Fecteau said.

Dr. Zach Mazone, owner of DaySpring Integrative Wellness in Bath, said patients should be free to refuse vaccines. The law does not mandate vaccines, but removes non-medical exemptions for those required to attend school.

“My job as a doctor is not to be a policeman for the state or for anyone, in attempting to enforce someone else’s viewpoint of what you need to do in your life,” Mazone said.

Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a supporter of the vaccination law and a vaccine expert, said the “Yes on 1” campaign “continues to use deception and half-truths to confuse and scare Mainers into doubts about vaccination.”

Claims of a link between the measles vaccine and autism have been debunked, and the original 1998 scholarly article about the topic retracted.

“With the exception of clean water, there is no single preventive health intervention more safe and effective than immunization,” said Blaisdell, a Yarmouth pediatrician and co-founder of Maine Families for Vaccines, the group supporting the new law. Maine Families for Vaccines is supported by major health organizations such as those representing, hospitals, doctors, nurses and health clinics.

Blaisdell said that in areas where herd immunity wanes and outbreaks occur, there is no “alternative explanation” other than that not enough people are getting vaccinated.

“No one has the right to put our children at risk, and parents have every right to know their child is safe from harm when they put them on the bus,” Blaisdell said.

Cara Sacks, campaign manager for Yes on 1, said the law should be repealed to protect individual freedom.

“If you believe in controlling what goes into your own body, then you are a Yes on 1 voter. If you believe in protecting our state from being bought and sold by Big Pharma, you are a Yes on 1 voter,” Sacks said. “If you believe in an education system for all where discrimination has no place, then you are a Yes on 1 voter. And if you are a proud Mainer who knows that our independence is what makes us so special, then you are a Yes on 1 voter.”

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