As people may be aware, Maine’s state legislators recently drafted LD 798 — a bill that would eliminate the current philosophical and religious exemptions for full vaccination of public school children. As a father, a pediatrician at Franklin Memorial Hospital and Franklin Health Pediatrics and the RSU 9 school physician, I am writing to reach out to parents and community leaders to urge people to learn about the bill and to act to support it to keep our public school children safe from deadly, vaccine-preventable disease.

Dr. Ryan Whitt

Unfortunately, the anti-vaccination community in this state is a vocal minority that spreads fear and distrust. Individuals who support keeping public school students safe from disease are needed to speak up loudly and clearly.

Because of recent disease outbreaks, parents have been forced to make uncomfortable decisions about where their children should go to school or daycare and who their children should spend time with. My wife and I frequently worry about sending our son to play groups, music classes or swim lessons where unvaccinated children may expose him to deadly diseases. It is my hope that parents in our community and our state will not have to continue to worry about sending their children to public schools.

As a pediatrician, I have cared for tens of thousands of patients and have ordered tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of vaccinations. Yes, I have had patients who have had rashes, fevers or fussiness following their vaccinations, as one might expect given that all interventions have occasional expected side effects. However, I have seen zero reactions that have led to any long-term health issues in my patients. Zero!

I often pose the following questions to parents who are skeptical of vaccines, “Why do you see me if you do not fully trust me? How can you trust me to treat your child’s pneumonia or ear infection if you don’t trust me on vaccines?”

There is no debate. Vaccines are safe, effective and safe lives.

On the flip side I have seen how dangerous the diseases we vaccinate against can be. I have seen outbreaks of pertussis in Franklin County, and witnessed community hysteria after a case of measles came through the local hospital in 2017. I have cared for children who had meningitis as infants and who, as a result, will never be able to walk or talk. I have also cried alongside parents as their child took his last breath from a vaccine-preventable disease. In an era of great scientific advances, I hope to never do that again.

In 2017-2018, Maine had the seventh highest non-medical vaccine exemption rate in the country, at 5.3 percent. Low vaccination rates put Maine children at risk for disease. The good news is that it is possible to reduce the risk of exposing our children to vaccine-preventable diseases. LD 798 was drafted as a preventative measure.

There are some who claim that this bill will exclude children from public education. This is simply not true. In the state of Maine, children who do not attend brick and mortar public schools will still have opportunities to engage in a free and appropriate public education through public virtual schools and academies. If children have a legitimate chronic disease such as cancer or an underlying immunodeficiency, they are still able to attend public schools with a medical exemption.

There are several important steps that people can take to advance LD 798:

First, for those who are not fully convinced of the safety of vaccinations, I would encourage finding reliable resources on the topic. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has a wonderful website on vaccine safety which can be found at www.chop.edu/centers-programs/vaccine-education-center.

Second, people can advocate for vaccines among friends and families, especially those who may question the safety of vaccines. Making sure our community is safe from deadly disease is everyone’s responsibility.

Third, people can also add their names to the list of parents who support vaccination by going to this website: www.mainefamiliesforvaccines.com

Fourth, people can encourage legislators to follow through on passing the upcoming legislation. Unfortunately the anti-vaccination community is a very vocal minority. More input is needed from those who understand the importance of vaccination and elected officials need to be encouraged to act to protect our children.

Public schools must be a safe place to learn for all children and cannot be continually disrupted by disease outbreaks that are preventable. As a pediatrician and father, I implore leaders and the community to take action. Ensuring that children are immunized as a condition of school entry is common-sense, constitutional and a critical measure for protecting our great community.

Ryan Whitt, MD, is a pediatrician at Franklin Memorial Hospital and Franklin Health Pediatrics. He lives in Wilton.