BAR HARBOR — All schoolchildren in Maine must now be immunized against meningococcal infections, which are serious and sometimes fatal, before entering seventh grade and again before starting 12th grade.
The Legislature last month passed a bill, which the governor signed, that authorized the Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services to add vaccination against meningococcal disease to the list of Maine School Immunization Requirements.
Meningococcal immunizations are aimed at preventing meningitis, a bacterial infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, and sepsis, a bloodstream infection.
The policy committee of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MSIRSS) board has proposed adding the meningococcal vaccine requirement to the schools’ policy on student immunizations. The policy change was introduced at the school board’s April 9 meeting and is to be voted on at its May 14 meeting.
However, it isn’t clear that the local school policy as written is the same as the new state requirements when it comes to meningococcus. The current policy states: “All students who enroll in [MDIRSS] schools are required by Maine law to present a certificate of immunization or evidence of immunization or immunity” against eight diseases. The policy change would add meningococcal disease to that list, without specifying that the meningococcal vaccine is required only for seventh- and 12th-grade students.
State law allows school boards to adopt immunization requirements that are more stringent than the state’s. But that does not seem to be the intention of local school officials. And the three MDIRSS elementary school nurses contacted by the Islander this week said they intend to follow the state’s meningococcal vaccine requirement, which will go into effect for seventh-grade students at the start of the 2018-2019 school year.
MDIRSS Superintendent Marc Gousse said he would take another look at the wording of the proposed policy change to make sure it conforms to state requirements, as intended.
Prior to the state acting to require meningococcal immunization for seventh-grade students, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended it for all teens and preteens, starting at age 11.
“In certain situations, other children and adults could be recommended to get meningococcal vaccines,” the CDC said.
Both the state and the MDIRSS require children entering kindergarten to be vaccinated against diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, polio mellitus, chicken pox, measles, mumps and rubella. A booster shot for diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus is required for enrollment in seventh grade.
Dr. Bruce Bates, director of the Maine CDC, was among those who testified before a legislative committee in January in favor the bill authorizing the addition of meningococcal vaccination to the state’s list of required immunizations.
“Meningococcal bacteria can cause severe life-threatening disease … and can result in permanent disabilities and even death within hours of the first symptoms,” he said. “One in 10 cases results in death.
“Young adults are at greatest risk … due to close contact through sports and the large group setting of school,” Bates said.
According to a fact sheet distributed by the Department of Health and Human Services, “An infected person can spread the disease by coughing or sneezing directly into the face of others, by kissing a person on the mouth, or by sharing a glass or cup.”
Also testifying in support of the bill were Emily Poland, school nurse consultant for the Department of Education, and Peter Michaud on behalf of the Maine Medical Association and Maine Immunization Coalition.
More than 20 states have added meningococcal vaccine to their lists of required immunizations for schoolchildren.
The DHHS notes that Maine law allows exemptions from school immunization requirements for three reasons:
“Physicians may grant … an exemption for students for whom immunizations are not medically indicated.
“You may request an exemption for children … if the immunization is contrary to your religious beliefs.
“You may request an exemption … if the immunization is contrary to your personal beliefs.”
Exemptions granted on religious or philosophical grounds must be renewed annually.