Opponents of a bill that would that would remove exemptions that currently allow Maine parents to opt out of vaccinating their children gathered Wednesday at the State House complex. Credit: Alex Acquisto

The debate over childhood vaccinations is already full of misinformation. Adding false claims about immigration into this mix is irresponsible — and downright wrong.

But, unfortunately, that’s exactly what Maine Republican Party leadership has done.

After a lengthy and contentious hearing on a bill to strengthen Maine’s vaccination requirements last week, the Maine GOP’s official account put out a series of tweets suggesting that immigrants are to blame for disease outbreaks in Maine and around the U.S.

In short, the Maine GOP argued on Twitter that Maine families should be able to forgo immunizations in the name of freedom but that immigrants must be vaccinated to protect Americans.

Even if we look past the underlying xenophobia here — and we shouldn’t — this logic is flawed. If vaccinations make sense for immigrants from a public health perspective, they make sense for American citizens as well.

In the face of criticism, Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro, the vice chairman of the Maine GOP, later said that the tweets were from him, not the party at large. But Isgro remains the second ranking party leader, and he clearly has the access and authority to tweet on behalf of the party, so that distinction means very little.

“We need a serious talk not only about vaccination but migration. Portland, & many US cities, have homeless crises driven by asylum claims & a record number of migrants crossing the border from countries lacking vaccinations.This causes certain diseases to return,” one of the tweets on the GOP account said Thursday.

“Even in states with strict vaccination laws, like California, near-extinct diseases are making a comeback. To protect Mainers & Americans, we need a pause on migration from countries that haven’t eradicated these diseases until we can figure out what is going on,” another tweet said, ignoring the fact that the U.S. hasn’t eradicated these diseases either.

The tweets were rightfully condemned by Maine Senate Republicans and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, the Portland Press Herald reported.

Collins spokeswoman Annie Clark said the senator “disagrees with the sentiments” of the tweets and favors a “more scientific approach to safeguard the health of our children.”

“We need to make clear that Maine is a great place to live, work, and raise a family, and that we welcome all people who come here legally and contribute,” Clark said.

Maine Senate Republicans “absolutely do not approve of the comments made by Nick Isgro using the Maine GOP Twitter account,” according to spokeswoman Krysta West, who added that they have reached out to the party chair “to ask that this matter be dealt with immediately.”

Despite these strong an warranted pushbacks from some Maine Republicans, the Maine House Republican caucus doesn’t appear concerned with Isgro’s rhetoric on an official party social media account.

“Maine House Republicans are concerned about the ever increasing number of Democratic proposals that spend 99.995% of all available revenues, borrow against our children’s future, increase local property taxes and threaten the Maine economy,” House Republican spokesman John Bott said in a statement to the BDN, not directly addressing the tweets.

After claiming responsibility for the tweets, Isgro continued to conflate disease outbreaks in the U.S. with immigrants. He shared a story about a York High School student who had contracted mumps, seemingly to make his point. However, the student — who was unvaccinated — contracted the disease while traveling outside the U.S. This has nothing to do with immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border. If anything, it highlights the dangers of kids not being vaccinated.

Isgro is right that there are mumps outbreaks at some immigrant detention centers, where unprecedented numbers of detainees are held in close quarters. He is also right that diseases that were nearly eradicated are making a comeback, in the US. .and Maine. But this is not because of immigrants, it is because vaccination rates here are slipping.

The percentage of Maine kindergarteners who are not vaccinated against common childhood diseases because of an exemption is more than twice the national average and has risen in recent years. Because of Maine’s high opt-out rates, the state has seen an increase in preventable childhood illnesses in recent years. Maine has one of the country’s highest rates of pertussis, a contagious respiratory disease better known as whooping cough.

By contrast, all immigrants seeking admission to the U.S. undergo a medical exam and must present proof of vaccination. If they don’t have proof, they are vaccinated by U.S. officials.

A 2016 study found that measles outbreaks in the U/S/ were mostly attributed to unvaccinated Americans traveling abroad, rather than immigrants bringing diseases to America.

“Efforts to prevent reestablishment of indigenous measles transmission in the US should focus on evidence-based risk assessments, highlighting a greater potential measles importation risk of from US residents travelling internationally than unauthorized immigrants coming to the US,” the study, by The Journal of Travel Medicine, concluded.

If Mainers are going to have the “serious talk” about vaccines and diseases that Isgro calls for — and we should — it must be based on science and facts, not false scare tactics about immigrants.