Just days after confirming the first case of measles in the state since 2017, Maine has banned religious and philosophical exemptions for preventable disease vaccinations.
The bill, known as LD 798, was signed into law on Friday (May 24, 2019) by the Democratic Governor Janet Mills. It states that health and education departments are no longer allowed to accept vaccine exemptions for a child unless their parent or guardian provides a statement from a licensed physician. If they remain unvaccinated without a legitimate medical explanation, they could be barred from attending school.
“As we hear more reports of measles and other preventable diseases in Maine and across the country, it has become clear that we must act to ensure the health of our communities,” said Representative Ryan Tipping, the bill’s sponsor, according to local news WGME-13. “I am grateful to my colleagues for working so hard on this bill and to Governor Mills for supporting this measure to protect our kids. I look forward to seeing this implemented and keeping our schools and daycares safe.”
The bill will still allow exemptions for medical reasons. For example, children with weakened immune systems, such as those undergoing cancer treatment, are often recommended not to receive a vaccine as it could put a further strain on their immune system. This medical exemption also neatly highlights why high vaccination rates are so crucial. While Maine’s latest move has attracted some criticism from families citing rights to religious or personal freedom, health professionals often note that the decision to avoid vaccinations is bigger than an individual's choice.
Not everyone is able to receive vaccinations due to their health. For their safety, the rest of the community needs to maintain a high vaccination rate in order to create an effect called “herd immunity”. If a high proportion of a community is vaccinated, any outbreak will quickly die out as there are not enough people for the pathogen to communicate the disease. In theory, this means the outbreak is quashed before it reaches any vulnerable people who are unable to receive the vaccine.
Three other states have previously taken this action against non-medical exceptions – California, West Virginia, and Mississippi. All three states have outstanding vaccination rates at 96.9, 98.4, and 99.4 percent coverage, respectively.
The World Health Organization recommends at least 95 percent immunization coverage with two doses of measles-containing vaccine to achieve a sturdy level of herd immunity. Maine has a vaccination rate of around 94.3 percent, according to the latest CDC statistics from 2018. While that's not disastrously low, the state is starkly aware that the vaccination rate has been slipping nationwide and, by no coincidence, also experiencing a dramatic surge of measles cases.