N.C. school with high rate of vaccine exemptions experiences widespread chickenpox outbreak

Cases of chickenpox are on the rise at one North Carolina private school where many families got vaccination exemptions. The Asheville Waldorf School, which teaches students from nursery school to sixth grade, is experiencing the state’s largest outbreak since the vaccine became available two decades ago, the Asheville Citizen Times reports.

A total of 36 students at the Asheville school had contracted chickenpox as of Friday, according to the Citizen Times. The school also has one of the highest rates of vaccination exemptions for religious reasons in North Carolina, reportedly topped only by two other schools.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that chickenpox “can be serious, even life-threatening, especially in babies, adolescents, adults, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.” Its website adds that the best way to protect against chickenpox is to get the vaccine, which a lot of parents at the Asheville Waldorf School decided to forgo.

Buncombe County Medical Director Jennifer Mullendore, MD, told the local Blue Ridge Public Radio that 68 percent of last year’s kindergarten class at Asheville Waldorf had an exemption for at least one required vaccine, with the chickenpox shot being the most common exemption.

“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 to the radio station.

The school’s outbreak highlights the potential consequences of the anti-vaccination movement, which is much larger than the Asheville community; a 2018 report from the CDC shows that the percentage of children under 2 who hadn’t received any vaccinations quadrupled from 2001 to 2017.

Chickenpox is contagious and can even spread one to two days before the infected person gets a rash, which allows an outbreak to continue growing before it’s even detected. As the CDC notes, the virus is mild for most children, but it’s impossible to know who will catch a severe case and experience serious complications.

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