Maine voters will decide March 3 whether to retain a state law that health officials say is needed to protect the public from diseases that had long been under control.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that as late as the late 1940s, polio outbreaks in the United States increased in frequency and size, crippling an average of more than 35,000 people each year.

Parents were frightened to let their children go outside, especially in the summer when the virus seemed to peak. Travel and commerce between affected cities were sometimes restricted. Public health officials imposed quarantines (used to separate and restrict the movement of well people who may have been exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become ill) on homes and towns where polio cases were diagnosed.

The front pages of The Courier-Gazette frequently made reference to polio — then called infantile paralysis. Page one of the the Oct. 1, 1935, edition was typical of the articles.

"There is no epidemic infection which tends to alarm the mothers of children to the same extent as does infantile paralysis," the article stated.

And an Oct. 11, 1927 front-page article stated that infantile paralysis was "as sinister a scourge as any afflicting modern day humanity."

The polio vaccine began treating patients in the mid-1950s.

Since 1979, no polio cases have originated in the U.S. and the last case originating from someone who had traveled to a place where polio still exists was in 1993.

Cases of measles in the U.S. have dropped from more than 400,000 in 1960 to a low of 37 in 2004. That dramatic drop came after a vaccine was developed. The number of cases have risen in the past several years, reaching 1,250 in 2019.

The Maine Legislature approved a bill in the spring of 2019 in the wake of an increase in cases such as measles nationwide and whooping cough in Maine. That law, however, was put on hold when opponents gathered enough signatures to place the question on the statewide ballot.

A no vote on the referendum would retain the law. A yes vote would repeal it.

The proposed law retains the ability of parents to get waivers for immunizations based on medical reasons but eliminates the exemptions for religious and philosophical reasons.

Laura Blaisdell, a pediatrician and mother of two boys who co-chairs Maine Families for Vaccines, pointed out that every major health care organization supports the law. This includes pediatricians and school nurses from around Knox County.

During a public hearing last year, physicians, school nurses, hospital organizations and other health care organizations voiced support for the law that is now on hold.

The Autism Society of Maine even submitted testimony in which it took no position but said "there has never been any credible scientific or medical evidence linking vaccinations with autism." The Society further stated that the "overwhelming consensus of the medical community concludes that vaccines are safe and effective."

Some opponents of vaccines have claimed that there is a link between vaccines and autism but those are from debunked theories and no peer reviewed scientific studies have found that link.

The proposed Maine law specifically allows for a medical exemption.

The law states that an exemption is granted if "The parent or the child provides a physician's written statement from a licensed physician, nurse practitioner or physician assistant that, in the licensed physician's, nurse practitioner's or physician assistant's professional judgment, immunization against one or more of the diseases may be medically inadvisable."

Vaccines are required for students to attend elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools as well employees of nursery schools and health care facilities.

Students or employees who are not vaccinated or receive a medical waiver would not be allowed to attend school or work in nursery schools or health care facilities.

Knox County has some of the highest exemption rates in the state for children to be vaccinated. During 2018-2019, 10.9 percent of kindergarten students received an exemption — nearly all for philosophical reasons.

Blaisdell said the opponents to the law are using half-truths to distract from the real issue — Maine's high rate of unvaccinated children.

"The law is a good law, We've taken an oath to protect patients and our communities," the pediatrician said.

According to the Maine Department of Education, the immunizations that students must receive before entering school are five to immunize against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough); four for polio protection; two to protect against measles, mumps, and rubella; and one for Varicella (chickenpox).

A booster shot to protect against pertussis and diphtheria as well as one to protect against Meningococcal menigitis is required by seventh grade.

Two meningococcal vaccines are required before entering the 12th grade.

The Yes on 1 group that wants to repeal the law offer their arguments on their Facebook page.

The group claims that in the " current political climate, medical exemptions are virtually impossible to obtain, no matter the severity of medical contraindications."

The Yes on 1 group points out that vaccines are created, manufactured and sold by drug companies. They carry the same risks and side effects as the drugs you see on television including injection site swelling, fever, and rash to as extreme as encephalopathy, and death.

According to the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 2006 to 2017 more than 3.4 billion doses of vaccines were distributed in the United States. A federal vaccine injury program, processed 6,595 petitions for compensation and 4,539 cases saw compensation paid.

The CDC noted this means for every one million doses of vaccine that were distributed, about one individual was compensated.

Since 1988, total compensation paid over the life of the program has been approximately $4.2 billion. Many of those awards were for influenza vaccination cases. Influenza vaccination is not mandatory for students in Maine although recommended.

Cara Sacks, from Yes on 1, said the current laws that have been in place for decades, work very well and have brought the state to an average 95% voluntary vaccination rate for school-aged children.

"This draconian legislation that we are fighting to overturn was passed based on fear but with no supporting evidence or documentation from any agency in Maine including the Maine CDC to support a need for a change to the current laws, let alone a change this severe. The laws that we've had in place allow for a small percentage of individuals to opt out of vaccination for personal belief reasons (philosophical or religious) and have procedures to exclude children missing a dose of a vaccine if there is an outbreak of that illness in their school environment," Sacks said.

According to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the percentage of Maine kindergarten students being exempted from vaccines has slowly been increasing from 4.4% during the 2014-2015 school year to 6.2% in 2018-2019. Nearly nine out of 10 of those exemptions are based on the philosophical reasons of parents.

Sacks, who grew up in Thomaston, said the proposed new law uses coercion by threatening the removal of the right to an education of any kind in Maine if an individual chooses to opt out of even one dose of a required vaccine for school or employment.

"What it does not do is exclude those individuals from living and otherwise participating in society. So a child could go to a concert or sporting event at school, but not be allowed to attend said school themselves. Children will still play with their friends, ride in the cart at the grocery store, play sports on the courts and fields with their friends. We do not feel that this law will actually do anything to change public health in Maine. If the goal was to increase the vaccination rate which is already high, then it would be much better to attempt voluntary and cooperative ways to do so," Sacks said.

Sacks said the issue is not about the success or efficacy of vaccines but "whether the government in conjunction with the pharmaceutical industry, should be able to coerce Mainers into medical decisions. We argue again that the program we have in place works, our vaccination rates are strong and not declining, and there is no threat to justify overriding people's right and freedom to decide what goes into the bodies of themselves and their children."

The Yes on 1 spokeswoman said that in other states such as California, there were crackdowns on exemptions given by doctors after exemptions for philosophical and religious reasons.

She also maintained that many Mainers object to the influence that the pharmaceutical industry -has played in the passage of the Maine law and similar mandates across the country.

"Vaccines are made by drug manufacturers. The same companies that created the opioid crisis that has ravaged our state, literally putting profits over people at every step including fraudulent safety studies to push products to market," she said.

Absentee ballots are already available in municipal offices for the March 3 vote.