In this edition of “Why Vaccines Matter,” a private elementary school is experiencing the largest outbreak of chickenpox in the state of North Carolina since the vaccine was introduced twenty-three years ago.
To date, at least 36 students at the Asheville Waldorf School in Asheville, N.C. have been diagnosed.
The school is home to 152 students from nursery school through sixth grade. According to 2017-18 data from the Department of Health and Human Services, of these, 110 kids have not been vaccinated citing religious exemption. That’s a whopping 72% and one of the highest non-vaccination rates in the state. As a result, 1/4 of the student body has contracted chickenpox since mid-September with officials expecting the number to rise.
If there was only some way to prevent the spread of this disease. Oh wait, there is.
The varicella vaccine. Which also happens to be 90% effective.
The state of North Carolina mandates vaccinations for all students but allows for exceptions for religious and medical reasons. In an email sent by the Asheville Waldorf School to Blueridge Public Radio, the school states:
At the Asheville Waldorf School our students’ overall health is always a priority and concern. The school follows immunization requirements put in place by the North Carolina State Board of Education. We also recognize that a parent’s decision to immunize their children happens before they enter school. At Asheville Waldorf School we support our families, we love our students, we love our city and we are grateful that our community is strong during challenging times.
The reality is that there will always be a segment of the population exempted from vaccinations due to age, health conditions, suppressed immune systems, and allergies. There will also always be others who refuse to vaccinate their children based on personal convictions and religious beliefs. However, the more people who are vaccinated, the less likely the chance of an outbreak. This is NOT a fake fact. It’s science.
And the outbreak at this Asheville, N.C. elementary school proves it.
According to a CNN interview with Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, the Buncombe County medical director, the situation at the school is still being monitored by the health department. Students with the disease are required to stay home. In addition, their classmates are also placed under a 21-day quarantine period in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.
The reason for that is it can take 21 days for the time somebody is exposed to chickenpox for them to actually develop the signs and symptoms of chickenpox,” Mullendore said. “We don’t want to have to keep those kids at home. If the child gets one dose of the chickenpox vaccine, they can return to school immediately.”
When I was growing up in the ’80s (before the release of the varicella vaccine in 1995), there were “chickenpox parties.” When one kid in the neighborhood got it, all the other kids would be purposefully exposed in the hopes that they, too, would become infected, and get it over with. It was common knowledge that it was best to have chickenpox as a child, rather than as an adult. And it wasn’t hard to get.
Chickenpox is extremely contagious. It’s a viral infection spread through both the air (by sneezing and coughing) and by direct contact with fluid from the blisters, saliva, and mucus. Symptoms include: itchy red fluid-filled blisters, fever, tiredness, sore throat, stomach and head aches.
Last month, a private Facebook group was uncovered in Boulder, Colorado inviting people to modern day pox parties, proving they are still alive and well. According to 9News.com, the anti-vaxxers are “willing to drive hours and even to different states to put their kids in the same room as an infected person.” The news station also obtained screenshots from the Facebook page showing strategies on how to get children sick. Apparently even anti-vaxxers are aware of the increased dangers of the virus as you age and hope to build their children’s immunity before they reach adulthood.
While chickenpox may seem to be fairly benign to the general population, what people tend to forget is that the side effects from this disease can be dangerous and in some cases, fatal. The CDC website states:
Chickenpox can be severe, especially for babies, adolescents, adults, pregnant women, and people with a weakened immune system. It can cause—
- Bacterial infections of the skin and soft tissues in children, including Group A streptococcal infections
- Infection or inflammation of the brain (encephalitis, cerebellar ataxia)
- Bleeding problems (hemorrhagic complications)
- Bloodstream infections (sepsis)
I am all for parents making choices that they believe are in the best interests of their children. However, when those choices impact others and can potentially lead to serious lifelong complications or even death, I think serious consideration needs to be given.
I wonder, if we had grown up in a time when we were firsthand witnesses to the horrors of polio, diphtheria, rubella, smallpox, and whooping cough, would we, as a society, still have the same attitude towards vaccines as we do now? Would there still be parents among us who would make the conscious choice not to vaccinate their children (barring the immunocompromised and those with allergies and medical conditions)?
Somehow I doubt it.