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Vaccinationland

By Chris Hedgpeth

Did you know George Washington inoculated the Continental Army against smallpox? In 1777, then Commander Washington set up a program to infect America’s troops with a weakened version of the smallpox virus to give them immunity to the disease. Back then, people had about a 1% to 2% chance of contracting smallpox from the treatment, known as variolation.

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Illustration by Chris Hedgpeth

Modern vaccination methods don’t carry this same risk of infection. For example, only about 1 or 2 people out of a million experience serious side effects from the flu vaccine. Despite the relative safety, there’s a large number of people who are convinced vaccines pose a threat to us. Much of this fear of vaccines stems from a discredited former physician named Andrew Wakefield, whose fraudulent 1998 study linked MMR vaccines to autism.

Unfortunately, it took about a decade to debunk Wakefield’s study – time enough to fuel a global “anti-vaxxer” movement. The spread of misinformation by this movement has led to several measles outbreaks in the U.S., including one in 2017 that affected Minnesota’s Somali-American community. Among the 75 people infected, the median age was two years old. Anti-vaxxers often claim to be fighting for children, but children, along with the elderly and people with weakened immune systems, are the ones their lies hurt the most.

For vaccines to be effective at stopping the spread of infectious disease, we need at least 95% of the population to be vaccinated. In Maine, over the past few years, our children have gradually exceeded a 5% vaccine opt-out rate. I shouldn’t need to do the math for you there. In response to this disturbing trend, Maine lawmakers crafted a bill, LD 798, that eliminates religious and philosophical exemptions from school vaccine requirements. On May 24th, Governor Mills signed this bill into law.

In September, a group opposing mandatory vaccines calling themselves “Mainers for Health and Parental Rights” led a campaign to collect signatures for a citizen’s veto of LD 798. If the state accepts their signatures as valid, we will most likely be voting on the fate of mandatory vaccines on March 3rd, 2020.

Bodily autonomy is something I value, but not when it’s callously used to harm others, and especially not when parents use it as a means to deny their own children protection from easily preventable diseases. Superstition and whimsy have no place in matters of public health, and informed consent is not a shield for ignorance to hide behind.

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