Public health experts pressed lawmakers Monday to support bills aimed at boosting vaccination rates in Maine, but Republican Gov. Paul LePage's administration and other critics said it's inappropriate to strip parents of the ability to choose whether to inoculate their children.
Lawmakers are considering whether to remove the philosophical exemption that allows parents to send their unvaccinated kids to school. Another bill would require parents to consult with their doctor and get a form signed if they wish to opt out for personal reasons.
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Doctors, lawmakers and other supporters told the Health and Human Services Committee that the state's vaccine opt-out-rate, the fifth highest in the country, is a growing public health risk, especially to children with suppressed immune systems that make them more susceptible to disease.
Shannon Gervais, whose elementary-school-age son has a condition that makes him extremely prone to pneumonia, said she relies on other parents getting their kids vaccinated to protect him from potentially devastating illnesses.
"Whooping cough to some people may be an annoyance, but it can kill my child," the Buxton resident said.
But Holly Lusk, a senior policy adviser to LePage, said the governor opposes the bills. LePage agrees that parents should be vaccinated "according to best medical practices," but he also believes "that parents must be given a choice in the matter," Lusk said.
Vaccine skeptics and parents who said their children were injured by vaccines wore stickers that said, "Where there is a risk, there must be free choice." They were joined at the Statehouse by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who claims that the vaccine preservative thimerosal causes autism.
That idea has been widely discredited by the federal government and medical experts. Overwhelming scientific research shows vaccines to be extremely safe and effective against preventing diseases.
Kennedy, the son of late U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, said he's "furiously pro-vaccine" and would support policies that encourage full coverage. But the way to do that is not through mandates, he said, but by "making sure that vaccines are safe and efficacious and making sure there is public trust for them and that the regulatory agencies have both integrity and public credibility."
Supporters of Democratic Rep. Linda Sanborn's bill, which would require parents to get a doctor's signature to opt out for personal reasons, said that measure is a common-sense proposal that would still give parents a choice but ensure that their decision is informed by science.
"When parents refuse what is easily considered one of the greatest medical advances in our collective history, it is sensible to ensure that their decision is well-reasoned and informed," said Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a pediatrician from South Portland.
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