By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News
Gov. Matt Bevin said in a radio interview that he exposed his nine children to chickenpox instead of vaccinating them, a practice that is strongly opposed by health officials as risky.
Bevin also cast doubt on longstanding government policy of requiring vaccinations, and incorrectly attributed the requirement to the federal government rather than the state. His administration recently made it easier for parents to exempt their children from school vaccination requirements.
Bevin raised the topic on Bowling Green’s WKCT, where the hosts had been discussing a lawsuiit by a Northern Kentucky teenager who had been barred from playing basketball, and then from school entirely, because he had not been vaccinated for chickenpox. Host Chad Young asked Bevin about bills he might veto, but the governor said he first wanted to continue the chickenpox discussion.
|Gov. Matt Bevin|
“Every single one of my kids had the chickenpox,” Bevin said. “They got the chickenpox on purpose because we found a neighbor that had it and I went and made sure every one of my kids was exposed to it, and they got it. . . . They were miserable for a few days, and they all turned out fine.”
Bevin and his wife, Glenna, have nine children, ages 5 to 16, according to his campaign website.The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly discourages such “chickenpox parties,” saying they are not worth the risk.
“Chickenpox can be serious and can lead to severe complications and death, even in healthy children,” the agency warns on its website. “There is no way to tell in advance how severe your child’s symptoms will be. So it is not worth taking the chance of exposing your child to someone with the disease. The best way to protect infants and children against chickenpox is to get them vaccinated.”
Dr. Sean McTigue, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at the University of Kentucky, told Kentucky Health News that the efficacy and safety of vaccines has been proven “time and time again.”
McTigue, who teaches pediatrics, said “chickenpox parties” might have made sense before there was a vaccine against the disease, because its risks after infancy increase with age, and some parents wanted to make sure they got it while they were young. But in the post-vaccine era, he called such parties “ludicrous.” The vaccine for chickenpox was licensed for use in the U.S. in 1995.Before that, the CDC reports, about 4 million Americans got chickenpox each year, over 10,500 were hospitalized and about 100 to 150 died.
Chickenpox is a highly contagious infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus that causes itchy, blister-like rash. Most children who get chickenpox recover completely, as the governor’s children did, but the CDC says it can be “serious, even deadly, especially for babies, adolescents, adults, pregnant women, and people with a weakened immune system.”
Shingles a risk
McTigue pointed out that a person who has had a natural chickenpox infection is at a greater risk than a vaccinated person of getting shingles, a painful skin rash that is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox.
During the radio interview, Bevin said that vaccinating children should be a parent’s decision, not the government’s.
“If you are worried about your child getting chickenpox or whatever else, vaccinate your child. . . . But for some people, and for some parents, for some reason they choose otherwise,” he said. “This is America. The federal government should not be forcing this upon people.”
The federal government does not force states to require vaccinations, only recommends that they do, a CDC spokesperson said. The National Conference of State Legislatures says all 50 states have laws requiring specific vaccines for students; 47 grant religious exemptions and 18 allow philosophical exemptions.
Kentucky only allows medical and religious exemptions. Chickenpox is among the diseases for which the state requires proof of vaccination, or medical documentation that the child has had the disease, in order to enter public kindergarten.
In 2017 the Bevin administration made it easier for parents to invoke the religious exemption, allowing to the law requiring vaccination to attend school. The new rules allow parents to download a form, have it notarized and submit it to their school upon enrollment, instead of having to get a signed form from a health-care provider. Spectrum News reported that the number of Kentucky parents claiming the religious exemption increased 59 percent in the 2017-18 school year.
A representative of the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services told a legislative committee in 2017 that the changes had been in the works for several years, in response to complaints that a medical entity should not have authority over a religious exemption; that a co-payment was often required to get a provider’s signature; and that parents and guardians were having trouble finding providers to sign the forms.
‘Herd immunity’ requires mandatory vaccinations
Bevin’s assertion that governments shouldn’t require vaccinations doesn’t take into account the principle of “herd immunity,” which occurs when enough people have been immunized against a disease to protect others who are not immunized. Some are not immunized because their immune systems are too weak to allow them to be vaccinated, or because they are too young to be vaccinated.
People with weakened immune systems include those with cancer, especially if they are being treated with an aggressive chemotherapy, people who have had bone-marrow transplants, people who have had an organ transplant, people with auto-immune disorders, like rheumatoid arthritis or Lupus, or people with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
“Those people are absolutely reliant upon herd immunity because we can’t immunize them,” McTigue said. “The only way that we have to protect them is to ensure that everybody around them is immunized so that the chances of them actually coming into contact with somebody who has one of these very infectious viruses or bacteria is very, very low.”
He said herd immunity is vitally important to protect babies, because they can’t be vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella or chickenpox until they are a year old because these vaccines are made with very weak, but live viruses.
“So, every single baby less than one year old is unvaccinated and unprotected against those conditions,” he said. “And the young babies who cannot yet be immunized against those conditions are exactly the patients that we worry about the most if they get those infections because they are at greatest risk of complications.” He added, “A varicella infection to a newborn baby can be fatal.”
It should also be noted that parents who chose to not get their children vaccinated also depend on herd immunity to keep their children healthy. But the practice puts others at risk, McTigue said.
“Not only does it put your child at risk of getting severe and potentially life-threatening illnesses, but it also puts other people in the community at risk of getting serious and potentially life-threatening infections,” he said.
The case that set the stage
After a chickenpox outbreak at Assumption Academy, a Roman Catholic school in Boone County, the Northern Kentucky Health Department on March 14 told students without proof of vaccination or immunity against chickenpox to not attend school until further notice, and their extracurricular activities were canceled.
Jerome Kunkel, an 18-year-old senior at the high school who has not been been vaccinated, filed suit against the department, claiming “health officials violated his freedom of religion and other rights by ordering students without the vaccine to not attend school or extracurricular activities,” Max Londberg reports for the Cincinnati Enquirer. The suit says Kunkel opposes the vaccine on religious grounds “due to its being derived from aborted fetal cells.”
The vaccine was developed in the 1960s with cells from a legally aborted fetus, but no aborted fetuses being used today, McTigue said. He said the Roman Catholic Church supports the vaccine.
In response to Bevin’s comments, the Kentucky Democratic Party called on the governor to clarify his position on vaccination against the hepatitis A virus, which has killed 44 people in the state.
“Kentucky is currently experiencing the worst outbreak of hepatitis A in the country. It is a major public health risk at this point. The last thing we need is Governor Bevin suggesting that immunization is not important,” the party said on its website. “Governor Bevin should reassure the public that he supports the recommendation of the entire medical community with respect to controlling an outbreak of Hepatitis A, which is immunization.”
The governor’s office did not return a request for further comment. Bevin is running for re-election this year; his running mate is state Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a Winchester physician who has publicly endorsed vaccinations.