The Maine Senate voted on Tuesday to approve a bill, LD 798, eliminating religious and philosophical exemptions from vaccination requirements for children attending school in the state. The Senate’s 18-17 vote reversed the chamber’s previous stance on the measure earlier this month, squared its position with that of the House, and put the legislation on track for Gov. Janet Mills’ signature. Passage would make Maine the fourth state to ban all non-medical vaccination exemptions.

Yet the reason why such an indispensable piece of public health legislation passed by only a whisker is hard to comprehend and makes me wonder whether dissenting lawmakers had a clue about either the history or science of epidemic disease.

Childhood vaccinations aren’t just a matter of preference or belief. They’re a vital public health tool to prevent deadly epidemics.

Epidemic viral diseases, which can be transmitted from one person to another through inhalation, ingestion or contact, are mass killers that have claimed millions of lives over millennia.

Viruses are not self-sustaining organisms like bacteria. They’re simply packets of DNA or RNA, in effect sets of biological operating instructions which enter living cells and hijack their machinery (in a way that is usually harmful and often fatal to the host) in order to replicate. (Computer viruses, which have been analogized to biological viruses, have a similarly destructive effect on the digital electronic systems they penetrate). Unlike bacteria, viruses can’t be treated after the fact with antibiotics.

There are currently only two ways to control viral diseases. The first is vaccination, which, by exposing a healthy person to a weak strain of a virus, stimulates the body’s own immune system to ward off the disease. The second is to quarantine — physically isolate — infected individuals to prevent them from transmitting the virus to others.

Failure to employ either method can lead to a geometric increase in the number of people afflicted by viral disease. For example, one person communicates the virus to four, who, in turn, infect 16, who then spread it to 256, and so on.

The quintessential viral disease used to be smallpox. Smallpox has been eradicated thanks to an international vaccination campaign by the World Health Organization, the last known case being reported in 1977. But for centuries it was a terrifying plague with mortality rates between 20% and 60%. Smallpox epidemics claimed over 300 million lives just in the 20th century, and those who contracted, but survived, it were usually left with disfiguring scars.

In 1798, an English physician, Edward Jenner, published his landmark discovery that pus from cowpox lesions, a far less virulent but related form of the virus, when applied to scratches on the arm of a healthy person, could immunize that person against smallpox. Jenner’s discovery, coupled with compulsory vaccination laws (the U.S. Supreme Court having ruled in 1905 that states had the right to require vaccination against smallpox during an epidemic) and systematic inoculation programs starting in the 20th century, gradually brought about the eradication of disease.

Measles, a common, highly contagious childhood viral disease which leads to hospitalization in one out of four cases and death from complications in one to two out of 1,000, can be effectively treated through vaccination. In fact, it was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, but it has since returned. In 2017, an estimated 110,000 people, mostly children under the age of 5, died from measles worldwide. In the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control, 839 cases of measles have been confirmed in 23 states from Jan. 1 through May 10, 2019. This is the greatest number reported since 1994.

Measles is only one of 14 vaccine-preventable diseases that are recommended for infants and young children through age 6.

The main roadblock to vaccination programs for all school children is the clamorous anti-vaccination movement, whose followers are sometimes dubbed “anti-vaxxers.” This motley crew consists of parents who have been spooked by junk science into believing that vaccines are responsible for the increasing incidence of childhood autism, misguided civil libertarians, and those, who for ideological reasons or political advantage, advocate religious accommodation over the exigencies of public health. The increasing popularity of the anti-vaxxer movement, which exploits state laws that permit parents to opt out of vaccinations for their children, has led, unsurprisingly, to an increase in the incidence of childhood contagion. After all, schools are like petri dishes which welcome an array of microbes to spread and grow in an environment of densely packed hosts with immature and unprotected immune systems.

While it’s easy to sympathize with the anxieties of parents who fret about the potential adverse side-effects of vaccinations, the objections of religious groups and political opportunists who play the anti-vaccination card are harder to stomach.

The practice of vaccination appeared long after the major religious faiths were founded, and, as a consequence, none of the sacred texts revered by these religions have anything to say about it. Indeed, amid the current controversy, most prominent religious leaders have publicly supported mandatory vaccination.

While it’s true, moreover, that the U.S. Constitution and all state constitutions protect the free exercise of religion and require that laws reasonably accommodate religious beliefs and practices, refusal to vaccinate is simply not reasonable. Unlike, say, the right of a baker to decline to create a wedding cake for the marriage of a same-sex couple (which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2012), the refusal to vaccinate endangers the lives of a large and vulnerable population.

The Republican Party, which has long embraced the anti-abortion movement, now seems to have taken the anti-vaccination movement under its wing. It’s striking that every GOP member of the Maine Senate voted against abolishing vaccination exemptions in last Tuesday’s vote. Yet it seems utterly inconsistent to advocate protecting life from the moment of conception, while, at the same time, opposing medical measures designed to protect the life and health of fetuses once they’re born.

The primary job of government is protect public safety and health, and mandatory vaccinations are a prime example of how that can be done. It’s just too bad there are no vaccines available to protect against legislative stupidity.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]

Comments are not available on this story.