AUGUSTA — A bill to eliminate religious or philosophical exemptions for childhood vaccinations is headed to Gov. Janet Mills for her signature, after a final debate and approval Thursday in the Maine Senate.

Prior to the 19-16 vote, lawmakers on both sides of the issue pointed to Maine’s first measles case in two years to bolster their arguments on one of the most contentious bills of the legislative session. If signed by Mills, as expected, the bill would require all children – except those with medical exemptions from a physician – to be immunized against a suite of infectious diseases in order to attend school.

Sen. Matthew Pouliot, an Augusta Republican who opposed eliminating religious and philosophical exemptions, said the bill was “seeking to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”

“The person that posed the danger just this week was vaccinated,” said Pouliot, referencing the reported case of a school-aged Somerset County child with measles. “So what we are going to do is pass a law to protect people when the case that we just had this week shows that a vaccination is in no way a panacea to solving this purported issue.”

But bill supporters urged their colleagues to listen to the overwhelming medical data on the safety of vaccines and the importance of widespread immunization.

Sen. Linda Sanborn, D-Gorham, a retired family physician, pointed out that the unnamed measles patient recovered quickly, which she attributed to the vaccine. Sanborn also said there are no reports to date that anyone else picked up the measles from the infected child.

“This is just what vaccines are meant to do,” Sanborn said. “This is just the effectiveness that we are looking for. Nobody knows where this child was exposed, but we do know that the vaccine did not cause the disease. We know that the benefits of vaccinations outweigh the risks.”

Measles cases in the United States hit a 25-year high through May 17, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with 880 cases in 24 states.

A majority of the cases have been contracted by people who have not been immunized, the CDC said. About 3 percent of people are still susceptible to contracting measles, despite being fully vaccinated. But according to the CDC, vaccinated persons who contract the measles will generally have milder symptoms than an unvaccinated individual.

The bill to end religious and philosophical exemptions for childhood vaccinations, L.D. 798, has drawn large crowds to the State House to lobby for or against the measure.

Opponents view the bill as interfering with religious liberties and parental choice, especially among parents concerned their child could be among the rare individuals to suffer severe side effects from vaccines. But supporters point out that the recent trend of unvaccinated children has led many schools to fall below the “herd immunity” that helps prevent outbreaks and protects infants or children who cannot receive immunizations because of other health problems.

Maine has one of the worst opt-out rates in the nation for schoolchildren entering kindergarten, at 5.6 percent in 2018-19.

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