North Carolina is currently experiencing the largest outbreak of chicken pox seen in the state since the chickenpox vaccine became available some 23 years ago, according to The Washington Post. But despite its magnitude, the outbreak isn't exactly a statewide problem. Rather, North Carolina's chicken pox outbreak is centered at a private school where the rate of vaccination exemptions is high.
About a dozen cases of chicken pox, also known as the varicella virus, were reported at Asheville Waldorf School in Asheville, North Carolina, earlier this month. Since then, the number of cases at the school, which reportedly has one of North Carolina's highest rates of vaccination exemption for religious reasons, has continued to grow, hitting 36 on Friday, according to The Asheville Citizen-Times.
While it's difficult to pinpoint the exact reasoning behind the outbreak's size, Asheville Waldorf School is reported to have the third highest rate of vaccination exemptions for to religious reasons in North Carolina, data obtained from the state's Department of Health and Human Services by The Asheville Citizen-Times showed. According to the paper, 19 of the 28 kindergartners enrolled in Asheville Waldorf School during the 2017-2018 school year had an exemption to at least one state-required vaccination in their file.
In a statement to Blue Ridge Public Radio, Asheville Waldorf School said it follows state immunization requirements and was working with the health department during the outbreak. "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.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes chicken pox as "a very contagious viral disease" that "is usually mild" but "can be serious in infants under 12 months of age, adolescents, adults, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems." Some of the more serious complications of the disease can include pneumonia, swelling of the brain, and infections in the joints, bones, or blood stream.
"Some people get so sick that they need to be hospitalized," the CDC has said of the virus on its website. "It doesn't happen often, but people can die from chickenpox."
While chicken pox was once considered to be a very common disease in the United States — according to the CDC, 4 million people contracted the disease each year, on average — the CDC now recommends the chicken pox vaccine as a means of protecting against the disease. "CDC recommends two doses of chickenpox vaccine for children, adolescents, and adults," the federal agency has said.
The medical director for North Carolina's Buncombe County has also stressed the importance of vaccinations in light of the recent outbreak. "We want to be clear: vaccination is the best protection from chickenpox," Dr. Jennifer Mullendore said in a press release. "Two doses of varicella vaccine can offer significant protection against 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," she continued.