The median age of people who live in Maine – 44.9 – has won us the dubious title of the oldest state in the country. But the Question 1 people’s veto campaign to restore nonmedical exemptions from vaccine requirements reminds us how young many of us are.

The median-age Mainer was born in January 1975, and half of the state’s population has been born since then. Few of them have had any firsthand experience with polio, whooping cough, measles or mumps, the diseases that routinely killed and disabled children before the days when vaccinations were widely available.

Before we go to the polls March 3 to determine whether people should be able to use self-defined religious or philosophical beliefs as the reason to send unvaccinated children to school, or unvaccinated health care workers to tend to the sick, we should listen to those old enough to remember when diseases swept through communities. We have been privileged to hear from a number of doctors who share their memories of those days through letters to the editor and Maine Voices columns that put the current fad of vaccine skepticism into chilling perspective.

Tony Owens, a doctor who lives in Cape Elizabeth, remembered waking with a headache in the summer of 1954, when he was 5 years old. He didn’t know it, but he had contracted polio.

“I spent weeks in a children’s hospital, all the wards full of children with polio. I remember my daily wheelchair excursions through the halls seeing other, less fortunate kids, some even in ‘iron lungs,’ ” he recalled in a Feb. 10 Maine Voices op-ed. “I was lucky. Unlike so many thousands of other victims each summer, I made a full recovery. By the next summer of 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk and his team had released a killed virus vaccine and in short order polio in most of the world was eliminated.”

Owens pointed out that polio occurs now only among the unvaccinated, especially in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria because of a religious fatwa suggesting that vaccination is a Western plot to sterilize their children.

Dr. Allen F. Browne of Falmouth wrote to recall what it was like to live with the constant fear of infection in the late 1940s and early 1950s:

“At 5 years of age, I fell into the pond while playing with a raft. I cried all the way home because I was convinced that I would get polio from getting my feet wet. I knew polio was bad …

“In fourth grade, I remember Sue S. stopped coming to school one day. The rumor was that she had polio and was paralyzed. We were all sad. She never came back.”

Dr. Harry Grimmnitz of Readfield remembered his mother, born in 1911, the second of eight children. Only three of them would survive to adulthood.

“Her older brother, Malcolm, died when he was 8 from polio. Andrew died from meningitis. Inez from diphtheria. May succumbed to measles. Margaret was taken by pneumonia,” he was told. Growing up in the 1950s, he remembers young people in his neighborhood being killed or crippled by polio before the vaccine was introduced.

“I fear that our society has grown so secure from the miraculous success of childhood immunizations that we forget how common childhood death and permanent disability was, and still is in many parts of the world.”

Widespread use of vaccines has changed the practice of medicine, wrote Dr. Norma Dreyfus of Arrowsic. “As a pediatrician in the 1960s I watched many serious infectious diseases be eradicated through the development of vaccines. Pediatrics was changed from an inpatient to a mostly outpatient specialty. Many hospitals closed their pediatric floors for lack of patients to fill beds.”

But now, she wrote, Maine is facing a crisis. To reliably protect against the spread of preventable diseases we need to have 95 percent immunity, Dreyfus said. Our statewide opt-out rate is edging past 5.6 percent and much higher in certain communities. This gives diseases a place where they can take hold and spread to people who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons.

Supporters of Question 1 claim that sending an unvaccinated child to school, or an unvaccinated CNA into a nursing home, should be a matter of personal choice. They say that the minuscule risk of vaccine harm should be allowed to outweigh the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of widespread immunization.

But before anyone fills out a ballot in favor of letting people’s personal beliefs dictate whether they should vaccinate, especially voters born since 1975, they should listen to these voices from an earlier era, who remember how bad things can get.

And everyone who is concerned about the return of these scourges should remember to get to the polls and vote “no” on Question 1.


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