Chickenpox Outbreak in Florida Exposes Importance of Varicella Vaccine
According to recent reports in The Gainesville Sun, there is a chickenpox outbreak in Florida that has recently spread to five different schools. Currently, the outbreak involves 65 cases in which 26 children were infected from the Bhaktivedanta Academy, 25 children from the Alachua Learning Center, one child in a public school and 13 others — four adults, eight children and one infant.
Before you go dismissing this as “just a few cases of chickenpox”, please read Josh’s story, recently highlighted by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Josh’s mother, Bev Connelly, talks openly about her son and says,
“… our world changed forever on April 13, 1996, when Josh died suddenly from chickenpox. I couldn’t believe that chickenpox could be that severe. I was one of seven kids, and we had all had chickenpox as children, and we knew lots of other people who had it too. No one had ever died.”
Unfortunately, Bev explains that Josh contracted chicken pox right around the time that the vaccine was first introduced.
“When Josh got chickenpox, the vaccine was new. His doctor was offering it when kids came in for their annual check-up. Josh’s check-up would have been in July.”
Bev goes on to say,
“Sadly, the doctor told me that he had been having trouble convincing parents to get the vaccine for their children. I always believed in vaccines, so I would like to think that I would have gotten the vaccine when it was offered in July, but I never had the chance. When Josh died, the local newspaper ran a story about him. After that, the doctor said he had an easier time convincing people to get their child vaccinated. I wished so much that I still had Josh . . . that I still had that chance to make the decision about the chickenpox vaccine, but I knew, for us, it was too late and I took comfort in knowing that when people heard about Josh, they decided to protect their children from the same thing. It was like Josh’s gift—not only to me, but to others. “
Unfortunately, even 15 years after the vaccine has been introduced, there are parents who still refuse this particular vaccine. Not only are they refusing the vaccine, but there is evidence that some are actively seeking a varicella infection through various parenting forums and social media outlets like the “Find a Pox Party in Your Area” Facebook page. People have even been known to mail chicken pox lollipops and other contaminated items to help spread the varicella infection to children in various areas of the country.
Obviously, these actions come from parents that believe it is better to infect their child “naturally” with the live varicella virus than have them attain immunity through the use of a safe and controlled vaccine. But one must wonder if they have ever stopped to consider that mailing these items are not only illegal, but potentially dangerous as they can be exposing their children to a whole host of other infections.
However, as I read reports regarding the current cases in Florida, there are a few other points that I would like to offer for discussion.
First, the article noted that 26 of the Bhaktivedanta Academy’s 27 students were unvaccinated and the health department determined that the outbreak demonstrated that the virus had an attack rate of 96.3 percent. These numbers help illustrate how pockets of unvaccinated children can pose an elevated risk for the spread of disease. It’s important to consider that sometimes, these numbers are not immediately evident when looking at the overall immunization rates of an entire state. Rather, they appear in isolated areas, as seen in these two schools.
Secondly, in an effort to prevent the further spread of this disease, the Health Department has prohibited 25 unvaccinated students in the area from attending school until April 25, or until they get vaccinated, or have recovered from a documented case of the virus. While this action is taken to help stop the outbreak, I couldn’t help but note that health officials anticipate that “12 of those 25 students would be back in class Thursday because they had gotten the vaccine since the notices went out between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.”
While there is no way to be sure, this seems to suggest that there was no medical, philosophical or even religious reason why these students were not vaccinated prior to now. In fact, one school representative stated that not vaccinating didn’t have anything to do with the school’s affiliated religion and stated that “It’s just a matter of parental preference”. It’s clear that as soon as these parents realized that their students were to be restricted from school, they quickly arranged for vaccinations. Perhaps it was just more convenient for the parents to get them vaccinated now, when they were faced with specific and direct consequences, as opposed to vaccinating them at the time of enrollment - illustrating that some parents remained misinformed about the importance of immunizations and some may not be vaccinating as a matter of convenience, rather than of personal conviction.
The reality is that not every story of chicken pox will end like Josh’s - but certainly some will. So why do parents prefer to take unnecessary risks when a vaccine is available? Even if the virus didn’t result in death, why wouldn’t a parent want to prevent their child from suffering an extended period of discomfort, that may result in permanent disabilities like Adam’s experience below?
For those who have witnessed the horrible consequences of this disease, like Josh’s family and friends, this is one vaccine that we can be fortunate we have to offer children today. If parents are vaccinating for other illnesses, hopefully they will see that their children also deserve protection from varicella as well. And as for parents intentionally infecting their children, we can only hope that these children will survive to make a better decision for their own kids.