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Chickenpox Outbreak Hits School Where Most Students Are Unvaccinated

Photograph by Twenty20

Chickenpox used to be so common among kids that getting it was considered a milestone. Parents would intentionally expose their kids to the virus, hoping to "get it over with" as quickly as possible. But in the 20 years since the chickenpox vaccine became available, cases of the dangerous illness have dwindled, leaving many hopeful that chickenpox could become a thing of the past—that is, until parents who are anti-vaccine started refusing the immunization. Now, a North Carolina private school is in the midst of one of the largest chickenpox outbreaks in over two decades.

As of Friday, November 16, 36 kids at the Asheville Waldorf School in Asheville, North Carolina, had confirmed cases of the chickenpox.

The Asheville Citizen-Times notes that it's the largest chickenpox outbreak in the area since 1995—before the vaccine was available—and the number of confirmed cases is only expected to grow, due to a huge number of unvaccinated children. During the 2017-18 school year, 110 of the school's 152 students had not received the chickenpox vaccine.

Many of the parents at Asheville Waldorf School seek religious exemptions from the vaccine requirements.

This is a move echoed by other private schools in the area, per the Asheville Citizen-Times. Two other local private schools had a 100 percent exemption rate for their incoming kindergarten classes last year. When asked about the high exemption rate at the Asheville Waldorf School, a representative told Blue Ridge Public Radio, "The school follows immunization requirements put in place by the state board of education, but also recognizes that a parent’s decision to immunize their children happens before they enter school."

The number of confirmed cases is only expected to grow, due to a huge number of unvaccinated children.

Still, the outbreak has sparked major concerns among parents and local health officials.

While some parents on Facebook are suggesting that people who are against vaccinations send their kids to separate schools, other parents are saying that getting chickenpox isn't that big of a deal.

Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Jennifer Mullendore, Buncombe County, North Carolina’s medical director, told the Asheville Citizen-Times, "People don’t think it’s a serious disease, and for the majority of people it’s not. But it’s not that way for everybody ... Two to three out of every 1,000 children infected with chickenpox required care in a hospital. To me, that’s not a mild disease, and if you’re the parent of one of those children, you probably don’t think so either. We want to be clear: Vaccination is the best protection from chickenpox.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chickenpox can actually be deadly.

Possible complications include pneumonia, infection or inflammation of the brain, bleeding problems and bloodstream infections. And, as with most illnesses, it is small babies, the elderly, and the immuno-compromised who are most at risk.

Susan Sullivan, a nurse with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) told the Citizen-Times, "The thing people need to understand is that when you have pockets of unvaccinated people, they serve as reservoirs for disease ... It's not just about you. It's about the people you interact with: pregnant women, people with AIDS, people finishing chemo. They're a part of our community, too, and we have to do what we can to protect everybody."

This post was originally published on Mom.me sister site CafeMom.