A chickenpox outbreak at a North Carolina private school has infected at least 36 students as of Friday, making it the worst in the state since 1995 when the vaccine first became available. Health officials say that Asheville Waldorf School, where all of the cases have been reported, has one of North Carolina’s highest religious exemption rates, allowing parents to opt out of having their children vaccinated.
“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 school said in a statement last Thursday, referring to the state law that children be immunized for chickenpox unless they’re exempt for medical or religious reasons.
According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, 110 out of 152 students, or 72 percent, at the Asheville Waldorf School did not receive the vaccine during the 2017-2018 school year. Only two other schools in the state have a higher opt-out rate for immunization, something that concerns Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, Buncombe County medical director.
“We want to be clear: Vaccination is the best protection from chickenpox,” she explained in light of the viral outbreak. “Two doses of varicella vaccine can offer significant protection against childhood chickenpox and shingles as an adult.” The Center for Disease Control and Prevention notes that these recommended doses are almost 90 percent effective at preventing the virus.
Mullendore hopes that the outbreak makes parents recognize the importance of vaccinations when it comes to keeping the community, and their kids, healthy. “We encourage everyone to get their children, and themselves vaccinated to prevent illness and the spread of disease to others in the community who are relying on those of us who can get vaccinated to protect them.”
Currently, to prevent the virus from spreading further, all classmates of the infected students must stay home for at least 21 days. Anyone returning to the school also must provide proof of immunity from a physician.