On May 24, 2019, Maine’s House of Representatives passed a bill (LD798) removing religious and philosophical vaccine exemptions to block Maine residents from getting an education in a public, private, parochial or trade school or enrolling in educational courses online. The bill also removed vaccine exemptions for students to attend colleges and universities, and barred adults from being employed in daycare or healthcare services unless they have received all state mandated vaccines.
The bill was strongly opposed by grassroots health freedom groups and passed the state Senate by only one vote. When Governor Janet Mills signed LD 798 into law the same day, Maine joined Mississippi, West Virginia, California and New York, as states that only offer a medical exemption to vaccination. Unless it is vetoed by Maine voters in a ballot vote on Mar. 3, 2020, the new law will go into effect on Sept. 1, 2021.
Maine Health Department Seeking 100 Percent Vaccination Rate
Maine is one of the 10 least populated states in the U.S. with a population of about 1.3 million people, which is less than one half of one percent of the total population of the U.S.1
In 2018, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services issued the National Immunization Survey Childhood Report of vaccination coverage in Maine for child and teen vaccinations recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) and stated, “In 2018, the Health Department reported that, “Maine is either at, or above, the national average for every childhood vaccine, with the exception of hepatitis B. Maine saw an increase of over 1.3% for the primary vaccine series [and] Maine saw an increase in every individual antigen and overall series.”2
State health officials also made it clear that they were seeking a 100 percent vaccination rate among all children in the state:
Vaccination is the most effective and efficient way to ensure these children, their family members and the community, particularly those who are immunocompromised, are protected against these vaccine preventable diseases. This is perhaps one of the most important reasons why MIP will continue to encourage parents and physicians to vaccinate their children and to help reach the goal of the Maine Immunization Program to bring the State vaccine coverage rate for each of these vaccines to 100%.
Opposition to Bill Inside and Outside of Legislature
During public hearings in the spring of 2019 on LD798, testimony was received by 781 citizens and organizations. State House and Senate committees listened to more than 13 hours of testimony from nearly 200 people, 80 percent of whom opposed the bill forcing vaccination with federally recommended vaccines as a condition of getting a primary, high school, college or trade school education in Maine.
Speaking out against the bill, Maine Rep. Heidi Sampson addressed the House, reminding fellow legislators that “the Constitution is designed to protect the minority. How dare we strip these people of their rights?” She said:
I want to be clear. The people will not go away quietly. We as a body have done them a huge disservice. They have been mocked, ridiculed, disenfranchised, dismissed, insulted, ignored, set up for ambush, bullied and stigmatized. Let me tell you, we’ve poked mama and papa bear. We’ve ignited a fire within them and they will fight. Members here may not realize the injustice that they’ve heaped upon these people with this most draconian measure. We have seriously overstepped our role and our oath of office.
Maine Voters Have Opportunity to Restore Vaccine Exemptions on Mar. 3
Mainers for Health and Parental Rights, a political action committee (PAC), filed paperwork with the state for a veto ballot referendum that would overturn the vaccine exemption repeal. In September 2019, the campaign filed 95,871 raw signatures, of which 79,056 were valid, exceeding the minimum of 63,067 signatures needed.3
Cara Sacks, co-chair of Mainers for Health and Parental Rights said on National Public Radio, “Many Mainers have never heard of this incredibly punitive and overreaching law that allows our government to mandate medical intervention in exchange for receiving any kind of education, whether private or public.” On October 17, 2019, Maine Secretary of State Dunlap announced that the veto referendum qualified to appear on the ballot at the statewide election on March 3, 2020.4
The veto referendum will appear on the ballot as “Question 1” and individuals and organizations campaigning to retain the law removing vaccine exemptions are organizing around a “No on 1” slogan. This position is represented by the Maine Families for Vaccines PAC. Yarmouth pediatrician Laura Blaisdell, MD, co-chair and co-founder of the PAC, argues that, “We need to oppose this veto, because our public spaces are not currently safe from infectious disease outbreaks. We know that we’re having outbreaks in schools and in our communities, and that’s because our community immunity has been threatened.”5
The “Yes to 1 Maine to Reject Big Pharma” Mainers for Health and Parental Rights PAC has organized to veto LD 798 and restore religious and philosophical exemptions to mandatory vaccination. The PAC’s spokesperson Cara Sacks pointed out that:
It should be parents’ choice to make medical decisions for their children, and it should not be mandated by the government. Voting “Yes” simply restores Maine’s previous law, which has protected Maine children well for decades and leaves medical decisions between patients and doctors. Rather than letting Mainers decide for ourselves, Big Pharma is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in a desperate attempt to influence this vote.6
Vaccine Industry Jumps In With Big Money to Defeat Voter Referendum to Restore Vaccine Exemptions
By early February, the “Yes on 1” Mainers for Health and Parents Rights PAC had raised far more money than the Maine Families for Vaccines PAC in the fundraising race, securing $315,752 in donations to the pro-mandatory vaccination Maine Families for Vaccines PAC’s $58,097 in donations.7 Sacks commented that:
The vast majority of our donors and donations are from everyday Mainers rather than the typical corporate and out-of-state interests that fund the majority of Maine political campaigns. Among the donors are many who identify themselves as therapists, counselors, acupuncturists, nurses, physicians and chiropractors. Many health practitioners, particularly those who are not funded or lobbied by Big Pharma oppose this terrible law because it removes their patient’s right to informed consent, a sacred and foundational principle of our modern medical system.8
The Maine Families for Vaccines PAC received the majority of their donations from the Maine Hospital Association, Maine Academy of Family Physicians, and the Maine Medical Association.9 Although the PAC has characterized itself as a grassroots organization that has not accepted money from “Big Pharma,” they have engaged Maine Street Solutions, a public relations/lobbying firm. Bobby Reynolds, a spokesman for the political committee linked to Maine Street Solutions, said the group was funded largely by health care groups and vaccine manufacturers.10
Maine Street Solutions has spent $476,000 to blanket southern Maine with television ads featuring doctors and children talking about the value of vaccines and the need to keep the law repealing vaccine exemptions. This has opened up questions about whether Maine Families for Vaccines and those lobbying against repeal of LD798 are beholden to the pharmaceutical industry, especially vaccine manufacturers.11
Questions About Pharma’s Influence Over Vaccine Policy
In her weekly radio address, Gov. Mills said the grassroots PAC campaigning to overturn Maine’s new vaccination law is using misleading tactics by suggesting Big Pharma is behind the law. Mills said the large pharmaceutical companies “hardly benefit at all from producing vaccines….their campaign is purposefully trying to conflate vaccinations with other issues like the opioid epidemic when these issues are distinctly different,” Mills said.12
According to a survey from Zion Market Research, the total market size for vaccines in the United States is estimated to generate $18 billion for the pharmaceutical industry by 2020, and the pediatric vaccine market is expected to more than double from $6.1 billion in 2014 to $13.8 billion in 2024.13 Big pharmaceutical companies like Merck, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, and Sanofi lead the global vaccine market.
According to Dr. Peter Bach, director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, pharmaceutical company revenue from school-required vaccines is a “tiny fraction” of pharmaceutical industry profits.14 Physicians not only benefit financially from directly administering vaccines to patients, but also from industry sponsored incentive programs like CDC’s AFIX (Assessment, Feedback, Incentives eXchange Program) and other insurance related programs.15
After watching pharmaceutical and medical industry lobbyists operate in Augusta, Maine’s Capitol, last May, Rep. Sampson observed that, “Maine is a small state that’s easily bought. We have 1.3 million people and special interests don’t even need a lot of money… for a million dollars they can convince policy makers to do their bidding. Policy makers here don’t even look under the hood of these laws. We’re like a cheap date. And if you can get Maine to do it, you can get the rest of the country to do it.”16
Vaccine Coverage and Exemption Rates in Maine
Before LD 798, Maine was one of 17 states that provided a philosophical exemption to vaccination, in addition to the religious and medical exemptions. In the 2018-2019 school year, a total of 6.2 percent of entering kindergarteners were exempt, with 0.6 percent holding a medical exemption, 0.4 percent claiming a religious exemption, and 5.2 percent claiming philosophical exemption. During the same period, exemptions for seventh graders were lower: a total of 4.7 percent were exempt, 0.1 percent holding a medical exemption, 0.3 percent claiming religious exemption and 4.3 percent claiming philosophical exemption.17
Between kindergarten and first grade, vaccination rates go up because many parents wait until the end of the acceptable age range for boosters, which the CDC says is between four and six years old. Parents of five year olds will often use a philosophical exemption for kindergarten and get the booster before first grade.
In 2015-2016, vaccination coverage rates in Maine for children entering kindergarten were 96.1 percent for the DTaP (diptheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis), 95.1 percent for the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella), 96 percent for the polio vaccine, and 96.1 percent for the varicella (chickenpox) vaccine.18 In 2018-2019, vaccination rates for the DTaP was 94.5 percent, MMR was 93.8 percent, polio was 94.5 percent and varicella was 95.9 percent.19
Infection Rates in Maine: No Deaths and Zero Cases of Measles
Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports the incidence of infectious disease in 2018 (the last year for which a report is available) for which schoolchildren receive vaccines as follows: measles (0), mumps (4), rubella (0), diptheria (0), pertussis or “whooping cough” (446), tetanus (0), hepatitis A (9), meningococcal disease (1), varicella or “chickenpox” (252).20 There were no deaths resulting from these infections in Maine.
Maine has more pertussis (whooping cough) cases than other states, for reasons that are not entirely clear but which may have to do with waning vaccine immunity, changes in the pertussis bacteria, asymptomatic and undiagnosed vaccinated carriers who unknowingly transmit the disease, or pockets of unvaccinated individuals. Nationally, in 2018 there were 15,609 reported cases of pertussis, down from 18,975 in 2017. The CDC has stated that 37.9 percent of reported pertussis cases in children under age six were in individuals who had received the primary 3-dose series of pertussis-containing vaccine and only 9.4 percent had not received any pertussis containing vaccine.21
Maine had one case of measles reported just days before the May 2019 vote. The child, who recovered, was fully vaccinated. It was unclear where the child, contracted the infection and whether it was vaccine strain or wild type measles. The only other measles case reported in Maine the past 20 years was in 2017.
Citizens Want Legal Right to Make Voluntary Vaccine Decisions
“The new law is a grotesque government overreach masquerading as public health,” says Rep. Sampson. She has been joined in opposition to LD 798 by Rep. Justin Fecteau, who said:
In Maine, we don’t have a vaccine issue, we have an issue with government telling us what to do with our bodies. The “No on 1” campaign has resorted to “cheap fear-mongering. This has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with authoritarianism.
A Plea From Parents
In testimony last May, Rep. Robert Foley shared his perspective as a father whose daughter died hours after getting vaccinated: “Unless you believe that healthy babies die for no reason, then I ask you to respect parents who have gone through what my wife and I have gone through,” he pleaded.22
Sarah Saffiere, whose five year-old son was diagnosed with a condition that compromises his immune system testified that she is “petrified” for him to be exposed to unvaccinated students. “It is one group against another. Both parties can’t win and so it is emotional,” said Staffiere.
On March 3rd, Mainers will vote for whether or not state health officials will have the power to enforce the use of federally recommended vaccines for every child and adult seeking a school education in Maine.
1 World Population Review. US States –Ranked by Population 2020. U.S. Census 2017 State Estimates.
2 Maine Department of Health and Human Services. 2018 National Immunization Survey Childhood Report.
3 Leary M. Group Seeking to Overturn Maine’s New Vaccine Law Submits Petitions. Maine Public Radio Sept. 18, 2019.
4 Department of the Secretary of State of the State of Maine. People’s veto effort to repeal vaccination law qualifies for ballot. Oct 17, 2019.
5 Voters to decide whether to repeal or keep Maine’s vaccine exemption law. WMTW Jan. 17, 2020.
6 Lawlor, J. Pharmaceutical companies fund ad campaign to support Maine’s new vaccine law The Portland Press Herald Feb. 10, 2020.
7 Lawlor, J. Campaigns begin public fight over Maine law limiting vaccine exemptions The Portland Press Herald Feb. 4, 2020.
8 Russell, E. Chiropractors give a big boost to people’s veto campaign against new vaccine law The Portland Press Herald Oct. 16, 2019.
9 Lawlor, J. Opponents of Maine vaccine law have big lead in fundraising race Portland Press Herald Jan. 17, 2020.
10 Andrews, C., Piper, J., Shepherd, M. Pharmaceutical companies help launch TV ad drive backing Maine vaccination law, Bangor Daily News Feb. 10, 2020.
11 Lawlor, J. Pharmaceutical companies fund ad campaign to support Maine’s new vaccine law The Portland Press Herald Feb. 10, 2020.
12 Thistle, S., Citing coronavirus, Mills urges voters to uphold Maine’s new vaccine law Portland Press Herald Jan. 31, 2020.
13 Doughman, E., Global Vaccine Market Revenue to Reach $5.9 Billion by 2020, Pharmaceutical Processing World May 20, 2019.
14 Voters to decide whether to repeal or keep Maine’s vaccine exemption law, WMTW Jan. 17, 2020.
15 Parpia, R., Doctors Incentivized by CDC to Increase Vaccination Coverage The Vaccine Reaction Aug. 11, 2016.
16 Interview with Rep. Heidi Sampson Feb. 17, 2020.
17 Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018-2019 School Vaccination Rates.
18 Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2015-2016 Maine School Immunization Assessment Report.
19 Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention 2018-2019 Maine School Immunization Assessment Report.
20 Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018 Infectious Disease Annual Report.
21 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018 Final Pertussis Surveillance Report.
22 McEvoy B. Hundreds of Mainers descend upon the State House to testify about vaccine bill News Center Maine Mar. 13, 2019.