My take on a forum for opposing views about vaccines

A measles vaccine is seen at a clinic in Los Angeles on Feb. 5, 2015.   REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

A measles vaccine is seen at a clinic in Los Angeles on Feb. 5, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

On Wednesday evening, about 40 people attended a WGME town hall forum about vaccination. I represented the BDN as a media partner in the event.

The intense public discussion over vaccines, particularly whether the government should require them, has culminated in Maine with new legislation. One bill seeks to end an exemption that allows parents to skip vaccines for their children for philosophical reasons, while another bill would make opting out harder. (A hotly contested bill in California to ban childhood vaccine exemptions moved ahead today.)

A third proposal by the Maine Coalition for Vaccine Choice, which opposes mandating vaccines, aims to create a new office within the state Department of Health and Human Services to evaluate vaccine injury claims.

Last night’s panelists were, from left:

Ginger Taylor, Maine Coalition for Vaccine Choice

Dr. Meryl Nass, Ellsworth Free Clinic

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, VP for clinical affairs at the University of New England and former director of the Maine CDC

Dr. Kevin Flanigan, medical director of the MaineCare program

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 4.06.55 PM

First, a few points.

  • The scientific consensus is overwhelming that vaccines are safe for the vast majority of people and effective at reducing or eliminating deadly disease. Some describe immunization and the subsequent stamping out of infectious illnesses like polio as the country’s greatest public health achievement.
  • The study that purported vaccines can cause autism — a founding document of the current anti-vaccine movement — has been resoundingly discredited. The British medical journal that originally published the study retracted it and its author was stripped of his medical license.
  • Most Maine parents vaccinate their children. While the opt out rate is on the rise, 95 percent of parents in the state sought no exemptions during the 2013-14 school year.

That being said, here are my observations from my seat in the front row.

First, the debate remained civil. Two Portland police officers were stationed in the studio, but fortunately they never had to intervene.

Most of the audience members who asked questions were skeptical of vaccines. The questions ranged from the safety of vaccines to the profit motives of the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture them.

Jana Barnello of WGME, who monitored social media throughout the discussion, told me after the taping that the sentiment online was strongly pro-vaccine.

The first question of the night came from a nurse who works in Maine Medical Center’s NICU, who challenged vaccine opponents for potentially exposing mothers and babies to dangerous illnesses (at the 4:40 mark).

Taylor responded that parents simply want the best data about the risks and benefits of vaccines, and the diseases they’re designed to prevent, to make informed decisions.

Both Mills and Flanigan enumerated the benefits of vaccines, while Taylor and Nass focused on risks. That’s how much of the night went. Taylor and Nass highlighted past lapses in vaccine safety and government deafness to concerns about risks, while Mills and Flanigan stressed the overall safety of the vaccine supply and the hundreds of thousands of lives saved by immunization.

Nass clarified that both she and her children are vaccinated (13:44 mark). But she said she was fortunate that she escaped any adverse effects.

Flanigan acknowledged that the system for ensuring vaccine safety isn’t perfect, but used an analogy to the auto industry to describe ongoing improvement (2:00 mark).

The federal program designed to compensate Americans injured by vaccines was also a topic of conversation. Immunizations do carry some risk, and in rare cases may lead to allergic reactions, seizures and some neurological effects. Taylor argued the system fails parents, an argument backed up by an Associated Press investigation that found years-long waits and other problems that “heaped additional suffering on thousands of families.” See her comments at the 17:12 mark.

Much of the recent news coverage about vaccination was spurred by a measles outbreak linked to the Disney theme park in California, which has sickened nearly 150 people in seven states. Mills recounted seeing young patients decades ago who died from the highly contagious disease and suffered from other illnesses preventable by vaccination (8:04 mark).

One area of agreement on the panel — more research is needed into the causes of autism.

I’m not convinced any minds were changed as a result of this town hall forum. A study published last March in the journal Pediatrics suggested that public health campaigns promoting vaccines and debunking the supposed links with autism and other health risks have backfired. Parents skeptical about vaccines actually deepened their resistance in the face of such campaigns.

How do we move the conversation forward? The divide will surely continue to play out among the public and lawmakers deciding the fate of Maine’s vaccine legislation.


Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.