A syringe is prepared for a vaccination injection. Credit: Stock photo

The percentage of Maine kindergarteners who are not vaccinated against common childhood diseases has risen in recent years. This is a serious cause for concern as disease outbreaks are more likely as fewer children receive the preventative immunizations.

It also points to the need for changes to Maine’s vaccine opt-out law, which is too lenient.

During the current school year, 5 percent of children enrolled in kindergarten were not immunized, according to state data reported by the Portland Press Herald. That a significant increase from the 3.9 percent in the 2014-15 school year.

These might seem like small, insignificant percentages, but for some vaccines, more than 90 percent of a population must be vaccinated in order to achieve what’s known as herd immunity, which protects those who are unable for medical reasons to be immunized against infectious diseases. When vaccination rates drop too low, children and adults with compromised immune systems are especially at risk of contracting diseases such as measles.

Maine’s 4.8 percent opt-out rate was more than double the national average of 1.8 percent in 2016-17, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Maine law allows parents to avoid vaccinating their children simply by saying their object to the immunizations. Maine is one of 18 states that allow this personal exemption. Exemptions are also allowed for religious reasons, although only two religions, Christian Science and the Dutch Reformed Church, have what could be considered anti-vaccine stances, and for medical reasons.

California, Mississippi and West Virginia are the only states that don’t allow exemptions for religious or philosophical reasons. Mississippi, not coincidentally, had the highest kindergarten vaccination rate in the country in 2016-17, according to the federal data.

California eliminated its “personal belief” exemption in 2015 following a measles outbreak there. California’s exemption covered both religious and philosophical objections. After the law was passed, the state’s opt-out rate dropped from 2.9 percent in 2013-14 to 0.6 in 2016-17.

Without an exemption, kindergarten students in Maine must be vaccinated against pertussis, diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, polio and chickenpox.

Because of Maine’s high opt-out rates, the state has Maine has seen an increase in preventable childhood illnesses in recent years. In 2015, Maine had twice as many cases of chickenpox than it did the previous year. State officials said more than two-thirds of the infections were among children who were not vaccinated or were undervaccinated.

Sixty-eight percent of the infections were in children who were not vaccinated at all or had not received the recommended two doses of the vaccine. Four of the children were too young to be vaccinated, highlighting the dangers of diminishing herd immunity.

While fears persist about the dangers of vaccinations, the one study that purported a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination was debunked several years ago. Scientists further ruled out the last possibility of an autism-vaccination link, determining that immunizations didn’t even raise autism risks among children at risk for the disorder. What scientists do agree on is that vaccinations save lives.

That’s why lawmakers need to again consider narrowing Maine’s exemption law.

Follow BDN Editorial & Opinion on Facebook for the latest opinions on the issues of the day in Maine.