The Grapevine

Chicken Pox Outbreak: How Anti-Vaccine Attitudes Put Children At Risk

Recently, 36 cases of chickenpox were confirmed by authorities at the Asheville Waldorf School, a private school in North Carolina. Noted as the largest outbreak to hit the state in decades, experts have tied it to the presence of the large anti-vaccine community.

According to the Citizen-Times, the school had a total of 152 children among which 110 had not received the chickenpox vaccine. Around 68 percent of the kindergarten students had religious immunization exemptions on file for the last academic year.

"We want to be clear: vaccination is the best protection from chickenpox," said County Medical Director Dr. Jennifer Mullendore.

She added just two doses of varicella vaccine can significantly reduce the risk of childhood chickenpox and shingles as an adult.

"When we see high numbers of unimmunized children and adults, we know that an illness like chickenpox can spread easily throughout the community — into our playgrounds, grocery stores, and sports teams."

The state of North Carolina allows two types of exemptions where people can skip vaccines for medical reasons or for religious beliefs. However, almost no religion objects to vaccination which makes the latter more of a personal belief exemption.

According to a study published earlier this year, some parts of the United States saw an increase in people choosing not to vaccinate their children for non-medical reasons. One particular concern expressed by the authors was over other nations possibly following suit. 

"It would be especially worrisome if the very large low- and middle-income countries — such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the BRIC nations), or Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan — reduce their vaccine coverage," they wrote, highlighting the potential for massive epidemics of childhood infections.

Anti-vaccine attitudes were fueled by conspiracy theories and misrepresented data, often making false claims that vaccines can lead to autism. The scientific community and major health organizations have continually debunked these beliefs, urging people to stop putting their children at risk of disease by refusing vaccines.

For instance, the 2017 measles outbreak in Minnesota which saw many children being hospitalized, was linked to anti-vaccine activists. Dr. Peter J. Hotez from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston noted measles to be the first childhood disease he sees in his patients, given how transmittable it is.

"The problem is not only among those kids who are not getting vaccinated — but any time that there’s a sibling or a friend of a sibling that’s under 12 months of age — those kids are not old enough to receive their measles vaccine," he stated. "What you worry about are outbreaks occurring among infants living in that community are not yet old enough to receive the measles vaccine."