A bill that would eliminate philosophical and religious exemptions for vaccines drew hundreds to the Maine State House Wednesday.
Supporters point to recent measles outbreaks in other states as a warning sign that Maine needs to boost its vaccination rates. But those concerned about the safety of vaccines say parents should have the freedom to choose.
If there's a question about the need to improve Maine's vaccine rates, Democratic Rep. Ryan Tipping told lawmakers on the Education and Cultural Committee to look no further than the measles outbreaks across six states so far this year.
"Whether it's because of misinformation, fear, indecision, people have withdrawn from the public effort to keep our communities floating high enough with an acceptable immunity percentages to avoid catastrophe," Tipping said.
Tipping is the sponsor of a bill that would eliminate philosophical and religious exemptions for vaccine requirements. Maine's opt-out rate is more than double the national average, at 5.3 percent - and the vast majority are for non-medical reasons.
Nancy Beardsley of the Maine Center for Disease Control, who testified in support of the bill, said that Hancock and Waldo counties have the highest opt out rates — and some of the highest rates of pertussis.
"Not only did high exemption rates likely contribute to higher rates of pertussis diseases in these two counties, but also in the entire state, as Maine reported the highest rate of pertussis disease in the country for 2018," she said.
Supporters of the bill include the Maine School Boards Association, the Maine Medical Association, and the Maine Hospital Association. Several students also came to the hearing to urge lawmakers to make their schools safer from infectious diseases.
Malachi Vazquez-Carr was among a group from Maranacook High School.
"Schools are places for learning and knowledge,” Vazquez Carr said. “And by allowing people to be unvaccinated due to falsehoods and hysteria, we fail to express our value of knowledge."
But other students oppose tightening vaccine requirements. Fourteen-year old Colin Aponte a freshman at John Bapst High School in Bangor, said the bill would prevent him from attending school.
"I'll be kicked out of school even though teens who vape, take drugs, get drunk and bully, are often allowed to remain,” he said. “I'll be punished, shamed and stigmatized, because my parents dare to exercise their religious freedom to choose what I inject into my body."
Other Mainers who oppose the bill emphasized the need to protect individual freedoms. Several, including Brian Schimp, a father from Dixmont, drew parallels to the abortion debate.
"Legislators say women have the right of pro-choice to take life when they want. But when it comes to pursuing life — to pursuing enjoyment in life — to pursue healthcare informed decisions not to put poisons in our body, they're saying we don't have that right," he said.
Parents also say they're concerned about safety. Some who oppose the bill pointed to the $4 billion the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has paid out over the past 30 years as evidence of the risks vaccines pose.
Pediatrician Dr. Sydney Sewall, who supports the bill, acknowledges that he's seen countless reactions to vaccines. But all, he said, have been temporary.
"The safety and efficacy of vaccines should not be the issue that's being debated,” said Sewall. “The science clearly supports public health."
If lawmakers do ultimately support eliminating vaccine exemptions for philosophical and religious reasons, a competing bill could make it easier to get medical exemptions. If passed, it would prohibit rules or policies that establish requirements for medical exemptions, leaving it to the sole discretion of the health care provider.
Updated 4:56 p.m. March 13, 2019