I’ve been thinking a lot lately about immunizations. Actually, as a doctor, and one of our state’s former epidemiologists, the health of our state is often on my mind. And I’m concerned for a number of reasons.

Ben Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I wish we could heed his sage advice, but it seems our state may be forgetting his words of wisdom. I became a physician specializing in infectious diseases more than 30 years ago. During that time, I have learned that Ben was correct — preventing diseases is much better than treating them.

Prevention can save lives and keep us all healthier. During my career, I have seen children die from diseases such as meningitis that could have been prevented, and I have seen many other children and families devastated by vaccine-preventable diseases.

Unfortunately, not enough children in our state are fully immunized and thereby are at risk for diseases that are uncomfortable at best, and deadly at worst. These include diseases such as measles, which in the most recent outbreak, spread across the country in rapid time.

But it’s not just measles. Mumps and pertussis (whooping cough) have made a comeback, too.

And there have been outbreaks of meningitis at college campuses from coast to coast — the most recent one infected six students, killing one.


The frustrating thing is that these diseases are all preventable — all you need to do is get vaccinated for them. And now our state is the middle of a debate about immunizations, and I am concerned we are going to forget the lessons of history.

Most people have never seen someone so physically crippled from polio that they can breathe only with the help of an iron lung. Before the polio vaccine America suffered its worst disease outbreak in our history, with nearly 60,000 cases and thousands of deaths. Heartbreakingly, most of those affected were children.

Today, 99 percent of polio has been eradicated — an incredible testament to the vaccine. But even these successes are at risk. Polio has re-emerged in Syria and continues in other parts of Asia and Africa because immunization programs have stopped, and public health systems have failed.

This is the lesson of immunizations: They work only when we can make sure that those at risk get vaccinated. When vaccination coverage declines or stops, diseases we have prevented begin to return.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends a routine regimen of immunizations for all children.

Most states require school-age children to follow all of the CDC’s guidelines if they want to attend public school. They do that for several reasons. The first is obvious — they want everyone to be as protected as possible from infectious diseases. Another reason is to protect those who can’t be immunized because their immune systems are compromised — for instance, if they have leukemia or some other medical condition.


One of the vaccines the CDC recommends is the meningitis vaccine. Meningitis is a frightening disease that can be mistaken for flu at the beginning. Within hours, however, patients can lose their arms and legs, suffer brain damage or hearing loss. Ten percent to 15 percent die.

Maine is one of the few states that does not require children to have the meningitis vaccine. But they should. Maine should. There’s legislation pending at the State House, L.D. 473, which would require children in Maine to do what the CDC advises.

Walk a mile in the shoes of a mother or father who has buried their child because of this horrible disease and you’ll know why it’s so important to require the immunization.

Another bill in the Legislature seeks to improve the vaccine coverage of Mainers by  tightening the philosophical exemption. Legislators should pass it.

We are fortunate today in that we now have safe and effective vaccines for several diseases.

We can prevent meningitis, we can prevent hepatitis, we can prevent measles, and the list goes on. But we cannot prevent these diseases unless we vaccinate. Immunizations are a medical gift. The best gift we can give our children, and the children of tomorrow, is to implement sound public health policy to take advantage of all these medical advances.

Dr. Stephen Sears is the former state epidemiologist for Maine.

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