- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 13, 2019

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) - A panel of Maine lawmakers began considering a bill Wednesday that would end non-medical exemptions for childhood vaccines required by schools and health care facilities.

Opponents, including dozens of parents and children who filled Statehouse hallways, lambasted the effort as governmental overreach that would stigmatize families and force parents who choose not to vaccinate their children to keep them home from school or day care. But supporters said the bill would better protect children with weak immune systems who cannot be vaccinated at a time when Maine has one of the nation’s highest rates of pertussis , also known as whooping cough.

“Right now, the choice is whether (parents) want to make a choice to put other kids at risk in addition to their own children,” said Democratic Rep. Ryan Tipping, who sponsored the bill.

Schools and many health care facilities typically require vaccinations, but Maine is among 17 states that allows some non-medical exemptions for “personal, moral or other beliefs,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But that can put people at risk who can’t receive vaccines due to autoimmune diseases or cancer and instead depend on high levels of vaccination in their communities to keep them healthy, said John Bancroft, the chair of pediatrics at Maine Medical Center.

Tipping’s bill would remove Maine’s religious and philosophical exemptions. Such efforts are gaining ground in Connecticut , Oregon and Washington.

The legislation comes in a year when the U.S. has counted more than 200 cases of measles in 11 states - including about 70 in an outbreak in the Pacific Northwest. Maine saw its first case of measles in 20 years in 2017, and federal data show Maine had the seventh highest rate of non-medical vaccine exemptions - 5 percent, or 666 kindergarteners - in 2017-2018.

Multiple studies have debunked claims that measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations increase the risk for autism, and the National Institutes of Health says reports of serious reactions are rare: about one every 100,000 vaccinations. In the U.S., more than 90 percent of the population nationally is properly vaccinated.

Opponents to ending non-medical exemptions argue parents should remain able to opt-out on religious or philosophical grounds. Critics said lawmakers should instead pass a GOP bill to prevent school boards and municipalities from having stricter immunization requirements than state law.

Republican Rep. Russell Black’s bill would also leave medical exemptions at the “sole discretion” of a health care provider, preventing policies requiring the review, approval or rejection of medical exemptions.

Courtney Miles, a 34-year-old social worker from Yarmouth who said vaccines are having a “negative impact” on her children, said she hopes Black’s bill will mean professionals like naturopaths could provide medical exemptions that couldn’t be second-guessed.

“We believe parents should have the right of what’s injected in our children,” she said.

But Waterville resident Sarah Staffiere said those who don’t vaccinate endanger her 5-year-old son Gabriel, who has an ultra-rare autoimmune condition triggered by a virus. He faced a terminal prognosis but has survived thanks to a drug that leaves his vaccines ineffective.

Gabriel’s excited for kindergarten this fall, but Staffiere said she isn’t.

“In the pit of my stomach, I am petrified,” said Staffiere, a college biology instructor. “What if the classmate next to him isn’t vaccinated and passes an illness he cannot fight off?”

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