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Maine Referendum Could Bring Back Religious And Philosophical Exemptions For Vaccines

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Maine is taking part in the presidential primary on Super Tuesday. Voters there will also be casting ballots on vaccine requirements. As Patty Wight at Maine Public Radio explains, a statewide referendum would allow voters to overturn a new law that eliminates religious and philosophical exemptions for childhood vaccines.

PATTY WIGHT, BYLINE: On a recent winter morning in the town of Newcastle, Molly Frost sends her kids off to catch the school bus.

ASA FROST: It's 7:30.

MOLLY FROST: Seven-thirty - all right. Bye, sweetie.

WIGHT: One of them is her 11-year-old son Asa.

FROST: Take the bus home.

WIGHT: The Frost family lives in a county on Maine's coast that has one of the highest vaccine exemption rates in the state. And that worries Molly because Asa has a compromised immune system. Asa got cancer when he was 5 and has relapsed three times. He's had chemotherapy, radiation and, most recently, a stem cell transplant.

FROST: He, at this point, has no immunity against any of the things he was vaccinated for in the past and could get very, very sick from those diseases were he to catch them.

WIGHT: That's why Frost was glad when Maine passed a law last year intended to protect kids like her son. It aims to boost immunization rates of kids entering school by eliminating nonmedical exemptions. It's not in effect yet. But if opponents have their way on Tuesday, it never will be.

CARA SACKS: It's a huge infringement on personal freedoms, on medical freedom in particular.

WIGHT: Cara Sacks is leading the group that put the repeal on the ballot. The group includes parents like Angie Kenney. She's used the philosophical exemption to refuse immunizations for her kids. She's done that ever since her older daughter had an adverse reaction after receiving the chickenpox vaccine at 18 months.

ANGIE KENNEY: She could not crawl. She couldn't walk. She couldn't even feed herself. And this went on for almost a year.

WIGHT: Her daughter was diagnosed with a brain injury called ataxia, and Kenney says she received a payment from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Her daughter is recovered and is now a teenager, but Kenney also has a 4-year-old and doesn't think the state should force her to get either girl vaccinated.

KENNEY: I'm not sacrificing my child for the greater good of the community.

WIGHT: Across Maine, doctors say the new law is needed to protect public health because more and more parents are using exemptions. More than 5% of kindergartners in Maine now have nonmedical exemptions, more than double the national average. That's pushed vaccination rates for many diseases in Maine below the critical threshold of 95%. That's the level needed to achieve herd immunity and avoid spreading a disease to kids like Asa Frost.

Pediatrician Dr. Laura Blaisdell is fighting to preserve the new law.

LAURA BLAISDELL: We have gotten to a point where we have no other solutions.

WIGHT: Maine has the second-highest rate of pertussis in the country. And Blaisdell says she worries that when other states have measles outbreaks, the disease could easily travel to Maine through the millions of tourists who visit each summer.

BLAISDELL: That sort of traffic is exactly the sort of traffic that a disease like measles would just love.

WIGHT: The backlash against the law doesn't surprise Alison Buttenheim at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies vaccine hesitancy and state exemptions. She says, when states eliminate entire categories of exemptions, some people perceive that as parental rights being sacrificed for public health.

ALISON BUTTENHEIM: And you sort of wonder, could Maine have taken a different policy step, maybe making those exemptions harder to get, and accomplish the same goal of coverage and disease protection without having to go through a big repeal effort?

WIGHT: If the new law is preserved, Maine would join four other states that don't allow any exemptions, except medical ones, from vaccinations.

For NPR News, I'm Patty Wight.

KELLY: And this story comes from NPR's reporting partnership with Maine Public Radio and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.