AUGUSTA – It was a crowded public hearing in Augusta Wednesday as lawmakers discussed getting rid of certain exemptions for vaccinating students.
Right now, parents in Maine can request an exemption from school-required immunizations based on medical, religious, or philosophical beliefs.
A bill in the state legislature could change that, by getting rid of all non-medical exemptions for day cares and schools.
“We want to make sure that we take action and take care of the problem before we start seeing headlines in the Bangor Daily News that are currently being seen in the New York Times,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ryan Tipping, D – Orono.
At more than five percent, Maine had the seventh highest non-medical vaccination exemption rate in the country last year, that’s according to the CDC.
Legislators and physicians are concerned about outbreaks in other states, but they said it’s happening here too.
One mother said her infant got chickenpox at a day care in Portland.
“It was a disaster frankly, he was really, really sick, we were really scared about him,” said Caitlin Gilmet.
But a bill with the intention to keep kids safe had a group of parents against it.
More than 120 people signed up to testify at a public hearing at the Maine State House. Many of those lined up were against the legislation.
Some opponents called the choice to vaccinate a parental right.
“We did have a vaccine injury in my family and it was very serious. And it was very scary,” said Toni Bashinsky, a Topsham resident. “It caused me to research for six years…to be labeled ill-informed or anything like that is very offensive.”
“I believe it goes against my constitutional rights,” said Jane Robertson, a licensed practitioner, from Belfast. “It’s really hard to get a medical exemption. We would have to leave the state.”
Lawmakers against the bill said there’s insufficient research to deny the choice.
“Where there is risk there has to be choice,” said Rep. Heidi Sampson, R – Alfred. “It’s taking the freedom of parents to choose what to do with their children.”
But those for the bill point toward thirteen schools in Maine they said have had cases of whooping cough. Falmouth High School currently has such an outbreak
According to physicians, even kids who are vaccinated still have a chance of getting sick.
That risk is higher for people with weakened immune systems, like one Falmouth High Schooler who has gotten whopping cough twice.
“There were enough cases of children that I will be in contact with for extended periods of time who have contracted this highly contagious illness and that’s something that puts me at risk,” said Matthew Hogenauer.
Kids already in school that have an exemption would be grandfathered from the legislation, as long as a medical professional provides a statement that their parents have been briefed on risks of not vaccinating.