Chickenpox returns

If there is one place in America that is serious about its spirituality, it must be Buncombe County, N.C., where the families of 5.7 percent of kindergarten students have claimed a religious exemption to avoid vaccinating their children against serious diseases.

The county in the hills of western North Carolina is now paying a modest price for this public health skepticism: The Washington Post reports that chickenpox is spreading at a private elementary school in Asheville, where at least 36 children have been treated for the itchy condition.

The school has North Carolina’s third-highest rate of vaccine religions exemptions, and 110 of its 152 students have not received the chickenpox vaccine. If that figure is accurate, there are a whole lot more than 36 children who are about to be introduced to the joys of the infection.

The outbreak is the state’s largest since the chickenpox vaccine became available in the 1990s. This does not make it a public health crisis on the order of a measles or polio breakout, but it does show the risk of philosophically opposing all vaccines.

One Asheville resident told the local news that she didn’t think chickenpox was a big deal. That mindset is typical when it comes to diseases that have been controlled for a long time.

For the vast majority of people who got chickenpox, usually as children, it was nothing more than a weeklong irritant. The disease introduced many a child to the wonders of Caladryl, a pink lotion that soothed the relentless itching caused by numerous chickenpox blisters.

But the disease is more than an irritant. Before the vaccine’s development, there were four million cases of chickenpox each year in America, and they resulted in about 10,000 hospitalizations and 100 to 150 deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that the vaccine has not eradicated the virus that causes chickenpox. But the vaccine has reduced the number of cases and their severity. A 14-year-long study said chickenpox infections have declined by about 90 percent. It is a medical success story, one that ought to one day reduce the number of adult shingles cases, since the same virus causes both conditions.

Mississippi remains one of the few states in America that does not have what amounts to conscientious-objector status about vaccines. The shots are not required by law, but parents who don’t want their kids to get them have little alternative besides home schooling.

The state Legislature regularly considers allowing vaccine exemptions for other than medical reasons, such as for children with a weakened immune system. Families lobbying for a choice have compelling stories to tell, on the basis of individual liberty and of fears that vaccines are linked to conditions like autism.

Some of these parents’ questions and concerns are legitimate. They should not be dismissed as silly or uninformed. The fact is that many parents who oppose vaccinations are very well informed about the subject.

For example, why are so many more shots recommended today than there were 20 or 30 years ago? One response is that while there are more shots, each has fewer immunological components than before. Still, it’s not hard to draw a line from the skillful lobbying of the pharmaceutical industry, which produces the vaccines, to the rising number of recommended inoculations.

But the chickenpox outbreak in North Carolina — at a school where two-thirds of the children did not get a vaccine — should encourage Mississippi lawmakers to stand their ground.

Anti-vaccine parents most likely buckle the seat belts of their children, or make them wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. Yet they are willing to expose their children to diseases that have killed millions? They do have the right to reject protection, but the risk is obvious.