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Maine voters retain law that reduces vaccine exemptions

March 3, 2020 GMT

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — With the backdrop of the coronavirus spreading around the world, Mainers on Tuesday voted to keep a state law that restricts exemptions on childhood vaccinations in a campaign that focused on community vs individual rights.

Every major medical organization in Maine supported the law approved last year that eliminated religious and philosophical exemptions at a time when more parents are forgoing vaccines for their children. Groups seeking to restore the exemptions contended parents, not lawmakers, should be responsible for making medical decisions for children.

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Democratic Gov. Janet Mills praised the outcome of the vote, saying Mainers did the right thing “for the health and safety of our kids.”

“Tonight, the health and well-being of Maine children prevailed. This law leaves medical exemptions up to medical professionals and ensures that Maine children are better protected from the spread of dangerous communicable diseases,” she said in a statement.

The People’s Veto referendum, which was rejected, aimed to undo the law that ends nonmedical vaccine opt-outs by September 2021 for students at public and private schools and universities, including nursery schools, and for health care facility employees. The law was part of a trend of states tightening rules on vaccine exemptions in response to growing numbers of unvaccinated children.

Cara Sacks, campaign manager for the effort to overturn the law, told supporters she didn’t think the vote reflected the true view of Mainers, suggesting they wouldn’t willingly hand over their medical rights “to an untrustworthy government.” She told the group: “It’s not over. It will never be over.”

The vote took place after patients tested positive for COVID-19 in neighboring New Hampshire and in Rhode Island. Researchers are rushing to create a vaccine for the coronavirus, but it was unclear if that had any impact on the Maine vote.

The Maine Legislature’s action last year came against the backdrop of a spike in whooping cough cases in the state.

Maine’s vaccination opt-out rate for kindergarteners is three times higher than the national average, and officials warned that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination rate among kindergarteners had dropped below 94%. That’s below the needed “herd” immunity level of 95% immunization, state officials said

Fighting the medical establishment with the so-called “People’s Veto” referendum was an assortment of Libertarians, Green Independents and others, including some parents who believe in vaccines but also support “medical choice.”

Much of their messaging targeted “Big Pharma.” Those who support the law said it was disingenuous to suggest the pharmaceutical industry had a vested interest in Maine’s law because vaccinations account for such a small fraction of pharmaceutical revenues, even though they account for billions of dollars in sales.