High school senior Jerome Kunkel and his family first made headlines back in March when they sued the Northern Kentucky Health Department for a policy that banned students who had not received the chickenpox vaccine, like Kunkel, from attending class or extracurricular activities.
A judge ruled against the family in April, but Kunkel is back in the news again this week after he contracted the very virus he refused vaccination against. His father says getting chickenpox is the “best thing to do” to become immune, according to the Washington Post. But health experts say that skipping vaccinations or intentionally getting sick can be dangerous—not just for the person making those choices, but for others around them, as well.
To learn more about chickenpox and the vaccine that protects against it, Health spoke with Deborah Wexler, MD, executive director of the Immunization Action Coalition. She says chickenpox can be much more serious than people believe, and that choosing not to vaccinate can have real—and sometimes even fatal—consequences.
What happened in Kentucky?
The drama started earlier this year when a chickenpox outbreak affected 32 students at Assumption Academy, a Catholic school in northern Kentucky. The Northern Kentucky Health Department announced that students who hadn’t been vaccinated or become immune to chickenpox (from having the illness previously) could not participate in school sports, and later, couldn’t be present on school grounds at all.
Kunkel’s father told news outlets that he didn’t want his son vaccinated after learning that some vaccines are created with cells from aborted fetuses. In court, the family cited their First Amendment rights and said that vaccination would be “immoral, illegal and sinful” according to their Catholic beliefs.
How is the chickenpox vaccine made?
In order for scientists to produce vaccines, viruses must be grown in human cell cultures. And it’s true that stem-cell lines from two legally aborted fetuses were used to create some vaccines—including the chickenpox vaccine—in the 1960s, according to the Immunization Action Coalition.
“Some parents are concerned about this issue because of misinformation they have encountered on the Internet,” the coalition states on its website. But it’s important for those people to understand that no fetal tissue has been added to these cell lines since they were originally created more than 50 years ago, the coalition reports. Ongoing abortions are not needed to manufacture vaccines, nor are vaccines contaminated with fetal tissue.
The chickenpox vaccine is a live vaccine, which means it’s a modified or weakened version of the naturally-occurring virus. It’s produced in a laboratory, where scientists grow and modify the virus in human cell cultures. Once injected, the weakened virus is unable to replicate in the body the same way a full-strength virus would. This allows a person to become immune without falling ill.
Even the Catholic Church has declared that these vaccines are acceptable when public health is at stake. Catholics have a “moral duty” to “make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulous and unethically,” according to a 2005 statement from the Vatican. “However, burden of this important battle cannot and must not fall on innocent children and on the health situation of the population—especially with regard to pregnant women,” the statement concluded.
Why is it so bad to skip the chickenpox vaccine?
Choosing not to vaccinate your child for chickenpox (or other diseases) is a seriously risky move, Dr. Wexler says. One reason is because it’s not known why some people develop life-threatening complications from chickenpox and others don’t.
Some kids will only have a mild version of chickenpox, which is also called varicella. This happened to be the case for Kunkel. His father told the Washington Post, “He had a couple days of misery, but after that he was pretty good. He itched a lot. He didn’t die. Isn’t that amazing?”
Because many children who get chickenpox do only develop a mild form of the illness, some parents believe the vaccination isn’t worth it. However, some people get very sick, and some even die, when they get chickenpox. Before the vaccination was introduced in the 1990s, about 4 million people got the disease every year, according to the CDC. Between 10,500 and 13,000 had to be hospitalized from chickenpox, and between 100 and 150 people died.
Chickenpox can cause encephalitis, a condition that can lead to permanent brain damage and death. Additionally, the lesions caused by chickenpox can become contaminated with bacteria, leading to “severe, deep skin infections,” Dr. Wexler says. These infections can even penetrate to the bone. “It can be harmful and dangerous—it becomes an overwhelming infection in the body,” Dr. Wexler says.
Since parents can’t predict whether or not their child will develop a mild form of chickenpox or a very serious one, health experts say that getting the vaccine is the best way to protect them from the disease.
Additionally, getting the vaccination protects those around you: People who are unable to be vaccinated because they have compromised immune systems, and babies under the age of one (when children can get their first of two shots) could suffer greatly from chickenpox if infected by a stranger who chose not to get vaccinated.
So can pregnant women, who can suffer complications such as pneumonia if they develop chickenpox while expecting. (Hence the Vatican’s mention in their note above.) Unborn babies are also at risk of serious birth defects as a result of chickenpox. Simply put, says Dr. Wexler, unvaccinated people “are posing a risk to children.”