- Associated Press - Sunday, May 10, 2015

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - The furious debate over vaccine exemptions that has divided parents and lawmakers across the country will rear its head in Maine this week, when the Legislature begins to consider proposals designed to make it harder for people to forgo inoculating their children.

The measures face fierce criticism from those who are skeptical about the safety of vaccines and believe lawmakers are trying to trample parents’ rights. But supporters - and general scientific consensus - say bolstering vaccine rates is essential to protect residents’ health.

“We hope just to tighten things up a little bit, give a little stronger voice to the importance of immunizations,” Dr. Lisa Ryan, a pediatrician in Bridgton and president of the Maine Medical Association.

The percentage of unvaccinated children in Maine schools is on the rise. More than 5 percent of Maine kindergarteners used one of the three exemptions - philosophical, medical or religious - in the 2013-2014 school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was up 1.2 percentage points from the previous year. Maine had the fifth-highest opt-out rate in the country.

The Health and Human Services Committee will hold a public hearing Monday on a bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Ralph Tucker of Brunswick that would remove the philosophical exemption. Another bill, introduced by retired family physician and Democratic Rep. Linda Sanborn of Gorham, would require parents to get their doctor to sign off if they choose to opt out for personal reasons.



Lawmakers across the country introduced bills to tighten vaccine rules after a measles outbreak at Disneyland sickened 147 people in the U.S., including 131 in California. Many of those who got sick weren’t vaccinated because of personal reasons or they were too young.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, who has lobbied lawmakers from California to Vermont to reject such bills, plans to attend Monday’s hearing. He said in an interview that he supports vaccines and has inoculated all six of his children but he promotes the idea that the vaccine preservative thimerosal is linked to autism.

Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that vaccines are extremely safe and that there is no link between vaccines and autism. The mercury-containing chemical has been removed or reduced to trace amounts in all routine childhood vaccines, except from some flu vaccines, since 2001.

Kennedy will be joined at the Statehouse by other vaccine skeptics, like Ginger Taylor, director of the Maine Coalition of Vaccine Choice.

Taylor is pushing for another proposal, introduced by Republican Rep. Beth O’Connor, that the committee will also consider Monday. That bill would establish a state “vaccination consumer protection office,” which among other things would provide information about the risks of vaccines and investigate vaccine injuries.

“We need to stop regulating the parents and start regulating the industry,” said Taylor, who believes her son’s autism was caused by the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine.

Andrew MacLean, deputy executive vice president and general counsel for the Maine Medical Association, acknowledged that the measure to eliminate the philosophical exemption will likely not be politically viable. He said that many in the medical community will likely throw their weight behind Sanborn’s proposal, instead.

Under that proposal, parents who want to use the philosophical exemption would have to present a form to the school or day care center that has been signed by a health care provider and says that the parent has been provided information about the risks and benefits of vaccines.

MacLean said that while lawmakers will be lobbied heavily by anti-vaccine advocates, he is hopeful that “science will carry the day.”

“Most people in the medical community are fairly stunned to the degree of skepticism about what many, if not most, clinicians and public health experts view as perhaps the single greatest public health accomplishment of the 20th century,” he said.

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Follow Alanna Durkin at https://www.twitter.com/aedurkin

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