Maine is seeing an alarming spike in cases of pertussis, an infectious respiratory disease that can be deadly to infants — a surge could have been slowed or even prevented if Gov. Paul LePage were committed to improving Maine’s immunization rate.
Also known as “whooping cough” for the severe hacking suffered by patients, pertussis can last for weeks and cause repeated vomiting and ruptured blood vessels in the eyes. But while the disease can make adults and older children seriously ill, it’s potentially fatal for children under a year old, who are at risk of severe breathing problems, pneumonia and seizures if they’re infected with the bacteria.
“I’m honestly a little bit scared,” Yarmouth pediatrician Laura Blaisdell recently told the Press Herald. She believes the state is susceptible to a whooping cough outbreak similar to one that took place in California in 2010, when there were 9,000 cases and 10 infant deaths.
The pertussis rate in Maine is consistently far above the national average: 21.1 cases per 100,000 people in Maine in 2015, compared to a national average of 10.3 (the most recent national figures available). There have been 88 cases of pertussis through April 1 of this year — including several recently reported in the Yarmouth and Cumberland-North Yarmouth school systems — compared to 57 over the same period in 2016.
Not coincidentally, we also have one of the highest rates of unvaccinated schoolchildren in the country. Blaisdell believes that the high number of parents who opt out of having their kids immunized is one of the factors driving the current surge in Maine.
Maine is one of the minority of states that lets parents forgo child vaccinations by citing philosophic objections. So it’s easy to opt out, and efforts to make the process tougher foundered in 2015, when Gov. LePage vetoed a bill that would have allowed parents to opt out for philosophic reasons only if they consulted with a physician.
In other words, parents with persistent, unfounded fears about the safety of vaccines don’t have to sit down with their family doctor and hear fact-based arguments for the benefits of immunization. The governor has chosen to enable those who believe they have a right to forgo immunizations and their life-saving benefits — and he should be held accountable for the very likely tragic outcome.