When an infectious disease is spreading through a community, the public needs to know. So the fact that the state wants to put a lid on the release of that information is both puzzling and troubling.

At issue is a rule change that would give the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention greater discretion to refuse to name the locations of outbreaks of diseases like measles, chicken pox and whooping cough.

The proposal comes a year after the Portland Press Herald sued over the state’s refusal to identify the site of four chicken pox outbreaks during the 2014-’15 school year — the highest number since the chicken pox vaccine became mandatory for school attendance in 2003. (Eighty-four students at three schools and a day care center were affected; the newspaper published the facilities’ names after settling with the state last fall.)

Though schools send notices home to parents during outbreaks, public notification could make it easier to publicly identify specific patients, the CDC argued when denying the newspaper’s request last year.

How that could happen is unclear. What’s more, this rationale apparently didn’t apply in 2006, when the agency identified the Brunswick school where over 30 cases of chicken pox had broken out. The state also named the locations of a 2004 whooping cough outbreak and a 2008 spate of hepatitis cases.

And that was the right thing for the state to do. Without a public announcement, people who don’t have school-age children wouldn’t know about an outbreak. Contagious diseases can make unvaccinated adults seriously ill. The same is true for the elderly, women who are pregnant, babies too young to be immunized and people with weakened immune systems, like those with cancer and AIDS. Public notification gives these vulnerable people a heads up on the need to avoid certain settings and time, if possible, to stave off illness by getting the vaccine.

Making the public aware of outbreak sites also spotlights areas where parents are forgoing recommended vaccinations for their children and serves as another check on how the state’s public health policies are working to protect residents from contagion.

The proposed CDC rule change is just one in a series of events that point to the LePage administration’s disregard for the benefits of transparency. Those who truly want to protect the health of the Maine public will speak up early and often for disclosure and against obfuscation.

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