A group campaigning to preserve Maine’s new vaccine law rolled out its first ad Monday thanks to funding provided by the pharmaceutical industry.

The Maine Street Solutions lobbying firm – with financial backing from vaccine manufacturers – is spending $476,000 to blanket southern Maine with television ads featuring doctors and children that support vaccinations. The firm, which has offices in Augusta, Portland, Boston and Washington, D.C., is connected to the Protect Schools Ballot Question Committee that opposes Question 1 on the March 3 ballot.

A video by opponents of the law – Yes on 1 to Reject Big Pharma – also was released Monday for an undetermined future television buy.

While the new pro-vaccine ad campaign erases an early financial advantage opponents of the law had held, it also opens up the vaccine law’s supporters to criticism that they are beholden to the pharmaceutical industry.

“Big Pharma is clearly determined to add Maine to its mandate list, coercing compliance in their ever-expanding vaccine schedule to increase their already exorbitant profits,” said Cara Sacks, the Yes on 1 campaign manager. “Rather than letting Mainers decide for ourselves, Big Pharma is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in a desperate attempt to influence this vote.”

Pharmaceutical company revenue from school-required vaccines is a “tiny fraction” of the industry, but still important to the bottom line, according to Dr. Peter Bach, director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

The surge in spending by pro-vaccine forces ramps up a contentious campaign leading to the March 3 referendum. Previously, the Yes on 1 campaign had a fundraising edge, with $315,000 raised compared to $58,000 for No on 1.

The law, approved by one vote in the Maine Senate last year, eliminates philosophic and religious exemptions for school-required vaccines starting in 2021. California, New York, West Virginia and Mississippi have similar laws that forbid opt-outs for non-medical reasons. California and New York approved their laws in recent years after suffering measles outbreaks. New York City’s measles outbreak sickened more than 600 in 2018-19.

Maine has high rates of parents opting kindergartners out of vaccines, and worst-in-the-nation pertussis rates, with 446 pertussis cases in 2018. Research has proven that vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective, and have prevented millions of cases of diseases like measles, chickenpox, pertussis and polio.

Caitlin Gilmet, campaign manager for Maine Families for Vaccines, a group that supports the No on 1 campaign, said the referendum is “not about ‘Big Pharma’ but about protecting public health and protecting Maine’s children.” She said focusing on the pharmaceutical industry is a diversion tactic.

Blue Yes on 1 signs that dot the Maine landscape do not mention vaccines, but urge voters to “Reject Big Pharma.”

“They can’t win on the facts and the science so they need to use misinformation and deceptive techniques that contradict decades of established medical science,” Gilmet said.

Bach, at Sloan Kettering, said the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes estimates that school-required vaccines generate about $7.2 billion of the $114.4 billion in total annual revenue earned by the four major drug manufacturers that produce vaccines.

“There are billions of dollars at stake, and the relative share of these companies’ revenues that comes from vaccines is a tiny fraction,” Bach said. “Also, even if refusal for vaccines is somewhat prevalent, it seems to me, based on no insight except guessing, that the percentage decline in sales would not be particularly meaningful.”

Maine Street Solutions commissioned the 30-second spot that supports the new law. The ad features Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a Yarmouth pediatrician, and Dr. Syd Sewall, an Augusta pediatrician, touting the value of vaccines to protect children from preventable diseases. Blaisdell co-founded Maine Families for Vaccines, a coalition of parents, doctors, public health advocates, hospitals and other health groups urging a “no” vote on Question 1 in the March 3 referendum.

“Thousands of Maine kids would be vulnerable to infectious and even deadly diseases,” Blaisdell says in the ad.

Maine Street Solutions is stepping up with the advertising buys to protect children from the return of preventable diseases like measles, pertussis and chickenpox, said Bobby Reynolds, a spokesman for the lobbying group.

In the Yes on 1 ad, people standing in front of various backdrops, such as a doctor’s office, classroom and church, urge Mainers to vote “yes.”

“I don’t want Big Pharma involved in our medical decisions,” said one unnamed man in the ad, wearing a flannel shirt and leaning on his pickup truck.

The Yes on 1 to Reject Big Pharma group is arguing that the new law infringes on parental rights to opt their children out of the vaccines.

Reynolds said that the opponents are working to “reject modern medicine.”

“When you don’t have an argument, you have to come up with a bogeyman,” Reynolds said.

Sacks said she is “confident that Mainers will see through this abuse of influence.”

“Voting Yes simply restores Maine’s previous law, which has protected Maine children well for decades and leaves medical decisions between patients and doctors,” Sacks said.

The No on 1 campaign is emphasizing the “herd immunity” protection from diseases when almost everyone has gotten immunizations. Herd immunity helps protect the immune compromised, such as children with leukemia or other diseases where the immune system is suppressed.

The immune compromised children are more likely to die or suffer severe health consequences if they contract a preventable disease.

 

 

 

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