Proposed Maine bill will make immunizations mandatory for students

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Graphic by Lauren McCallum / Design Director

By Gus Pignatello, Staff Writer

Maine legislators are considering passing a bill that would tighten restrictions on vaccinations. According to the bill, the legislation would eliminate the option for students to opt out of immunization requirements for religious and philosophical reasons, only allowing medical exceptions.

Rep. Ryan Tipping from Orono and Sen. Linda Sanborn from Gorham support this bill, LD 798.

A Maine Sunday Telegram article stated that Maine has one of the highest vaccination opt out rates in the nation, and ranks number one for outbreaks of pertussis, with 446 cases in 2018 alone.

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a bacterial infection that can last up to 10 weeks, and can be fatal for more susceptible individuals, such as babies or the elderly. Whooping cough is one of many diseases that were cured by vaccines more than 50 years ago.

If the bill passes, Maine will join California, West Virginia and Mississippi as one of the few states to have eliminated non-medical exemptions to immunization laws.

Some pushback on the bill is the possibility that it could deter young Mainers from attending college. Samantha Warren, the Director of Government and Community Relations for the University of Maine System (UMS), submitted testimony on behalf of the system.

In the statement, she highlighted that at the UMS campuses with heavy commuter students have a much higher rate of unvaccinated students, with University of Maine Augusta having almost a quarter of its students opting out of requirements.

“While certainly some of these students request their exemption thoughtfully and intentionally, it is the university’s assumption that most are actually without convenient access to immunization or to their immunization records at the time of course registration,” Warren said. She highlighted some compromise that the bill could take on, including current college students being grandfathered in, and colleges and universities providing free or low-cost vaccinations.

Linda Belanger, the Director of Health Services here at USM, has joined with numerous health care professionals across Maine to independently submit testimony for the bill.

In this testimony, written specifically regarding college students, Belanger highlights that many college students opt out of immunization requirements out of convenience rather than from philosophical or religious beliefs. She points out that the process for submitting an exception is far too simple, and that rather than omit the option entirely, Maine should require students opting out to submit written statements summarizing their beliefs, as well as meeting with a healthcare professional to discuss the benefits of getting vaccinated.

Belanger believes in creating a dialogue. When asked what she would say to a mother choosing to keep her children unvaccinated, she said she would first want the mother to explain her beliefs on vaccinations. She stated that many people are simply uneducated on the matter and having open discourse could help remedy that.

According to Belanger, the issue with having so many people unvaccinated is it reduces herd immunity, the ability of a community to protect members who may be at risk of infectious diseases.

She stated that vaccinations tell the body to target specific viruses or bacteria, and in theory protect the individual from being infected. But she made the point that these vaccinations are not perfect, and when unvaccinated people get infected the virus can mutate to the point where the vaccine can’t protect against it.

Often the people most at risk from poor herd immunity are the same that fall under the medical exemption for vaccines. According to the CDC, people with leukemia or suffering from seizures could be at risk getting vaccinated.

A Portland Press Herald article written by Joe Lawler tells the story of Matt Hogenauer, of Falmouth High School, who suffers from non-rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that causes him to be susceptible to infectious diseases like measles and chickenpox.

In 2016 he contracted pertussis and believes he may have been infected by students that were unvaccinated. In the article, Hogenauer compared being unvaccinated to drunk driving, stating that, “You’re not only putting yourself at risk, but you could hurt others.”

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