Truth in advertising? Not hardly. Signs have popped up around Hancock County and beyond that say: “Yes on 1. Reject Big Pharma.” The trouble is, Question 1 has little to do with “Big Pharma.” That’s just a pithy way to put an earworm into the background music in a Maine voter’s head.
Question 1, coming up on the March 3 ballot, is a citizen’s initiative to repeal a repeal. The first repeal, passed in 2019 by the Maine Legislature and scheduled to take effect in September 2021, repealed the opportunity for Maine parents to take a pass on having their children vaccinated if they had a “sincerely held religious or philosophical belief” against it. The Maine Department of Education says 5.6 percent of Maine students declined vaccination in the 2018-19 school year. Over half of those were for non-medical reasons.
When we become parents, the world of all things bright and beautiful suddenly becomes a thicket of threats. We worry about kids getting into our medications (hence the childproof medication caps), car accidents (car seats) and falls from bicycles (helmets). We worry about stranger danger, eating eggs, bullying, screen time, report cards, fluoride and football.
But polio? Measles? Whooping cough? They have slipped to the bottom of the worry list, largely because nobody seems to get them anymore. Hello! Vaccinations! Yet a single scientific claim, since debunked, created enough anxiety among parents that more and more of them are opting out of having their children vaccinated.
Childhood illnesses that had almost entirely vanished are coming back. These illnesses are by no means a simple rite of passage. Many kids experience no more than a week or so of discomfort: itching, fever, malaise. But for others, illnesses such as measles, mumps and whooping cough are much more serious.
Now comes the second repeal, to repeal the repeal of the religious or philosophical objection and once again allow parents to opt out of having their children vaccinated for philosophical or religious reasons, which amounts to any reason at all.
Mind you, no one is trying to force vaccinations on children who are allergic to a vaccine component or who would otherwise be medically compromised by vaccination, such as kids with immune system disease. But the kids who are unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons depend on the rest of us to vaccinate our kids, providing “herd immunity,” a vaccination rate high enough to prevent an outbreak of disease in our communities.
Most sources put herd immunity at a vaccination rate between 93 percent and 95 percent. Maine is slipping below that level, so an illness introduced into a community is more likely to spread. Diseases considered eliminated in the United States are not uncommon in other countries where vaccination rates are much lower. And people travel. It is a funny debate to be having in the midst of the furor about coronavirus.
Part of the popularity of the notion that vaccines are dangerous is attributed to celebrities who espouse it. Our nation is in thrall to entertainers, willing to accept the word of popular cultural figures over that of scientists. We are all about the “likes,” not the rigorous process of evaluating scientific information. If Jim Carrey says vaccines are dangerous, a significant percentage of us will decide not to vaccinate our kids.
Let’s look at one particular disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rubella, often called “German measles,” was considered eliminated in the United States in 2004. Prior to the availability of a rubella vaccine (1969) it was common. In the last major outbreak (1964-65), the CDC says “an estimated 12.5 million people got rubella, 11,000 pregnant women lost their babies, 2,100 newborns died and 20,000 babies were born with congenital rubella syndrome (birth defects including deafness, heart defects, intellectual disabilities, liver and spleen damage). There is no cure.
“Big Pharma” is a convenient bogeyman. We hate Big Pharma because they are big. And rich. And because they poisoned our communities with opioids they knew were dangerous, making vast piles of money in the process. Big Pharma may indeed have some things to answer for, but it is not vaccines that have made them rich. Estimates credit vaccines for about 3 percent of their earnings.
Reject Big Pharma? What you should reject is a craven attempt to link this initiative to Big Pharma for the sake of a political hot flash. Are vaccines 100 percent safe and effective? No. But compared to the adverse impacts of what were once common childhood diseases, they are a big, often life-saving improvement.
Who will you look to for advice about a healthy future for your kids? Jessica Biel, or your child’s pediatrician? The American Academy of Pediatrics? The CDC? The latter three all agree that the safety of all our kids depends on vaccination.