Chickenpox hits Northern Ky. Catholic-school student who sued after being barred from school and activities for lack of vaccination

Jerome Kunkel, 18, testified in Boone Circuit Court April 1. (Photo by Liz Dufour, Cincinnati Enquirer)
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The unvaccinated high-school student who recently lost a court battle over health-department enforcement that barred him from his school and all extracurricular activities during a chickenpox outbreak has come down with the disease, Anne Saker reports for the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Saker reports that nearly 90% of the schools’ students have religious exemptions against vaccinations — a process that has become easier under the administration of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.The attorney representing 18-year-old Jerome Kunkel said Kunkel got the pox last week.

Kunkel’s symptoms appeared nearly two months after the Northern Kentucky Health Department issued an order barring students in two parochial schools who lacked proof of vaccination or immunity to the chickenpox virus from attending school or any school activities until 21 days after the last case of chickenpox appeared. The health department called for the ban after 32 students, or about 13% of the student body, got the disease.

Kunkel, along with other students who joined Kunkel’s lawsuit, object to the chickenpox vaccine because it was developed using human cell cultures from two legal abortions in the 1960s. The cell cultures have been maintained in laboratories, but no additional fetal tissue has been added since they were originally created, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The ban included students at Assumption Academy, where Kunkel is a senior, and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, an elementary school on the same property. The schools and its church are affiliated with the Society of St. Pius X, a conservative branch of Catholicism that rejects Vatican II reforms. The Roman Catholic Church does not oppose the use of the vaccine.

Judge James R. Schrand ruled against Kunkel, who has appealed; the Kentucky Court of Appeals has yet to rule on the case, and the school-attendance ban remains in effect.

The Kunkel family’s attorney, Christopher Wiest of Covington, told Morgan Gstalter of The Hill that they don’t regret their decision to not vaccinate. “These are deeply held religious beliefs, they’re sincerely held beliefs,” she said. “They always recognized they were running the risk of getting it, and they were OK with it.”

Chickenpox is a highly contagious disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus that causes itchy, blister-like rash. Most children who get the disease recover completely, but the CDC says it can be “serious, even deadly, especially for babies, adolescents, adults, pregnant women, and people with a weakened immune system.” The vaccine for chickenpox was licensed for use in the U.S. in 1995.

At an April 1 hearing, Wiest noted that the Sacred Heart community gathers for Mass and meals on Sundays, suggesting that the school-attendance ban would not keep the disease from spreading, Saker reports. On Tuesday, he said that since then, more than half of his clients had become infected: “I flat-out told the moms and dads the quickest path to resolving this is having them contract chickenpox.”

That’s a tactic Bevin recently promoted when he said he exposed his nine children to chickenpox instead of vaccinating them, a practice that is strongly opposed by health officials as risky. He volunteered the comment to a radio talk-show host who had been discussing the controversy.

The health department immediately issued a statement that said Wiest advising his clients to actively contract the virus so that they can become naturally immune “is deeply concerning” and is “clearly not appropriate medical advice.”

The statement noted that while the tactic may provide individual immunity, the infected person can then easily spread the virus to others, including people who are unable to be vaccinated for various reasons and are counting on those who can be vaccinated to protect them from this disease and others that could potentially kill them, a concept called “herd immunity.”

“Encouraging the spread of an acute infectious disease in a community demonstrates a callous disregard for the health and safety of friends, family, neighbors, and unsuspecting members of the general public,” the health department said. A person who has contracted chickenpox can be infectious for up to two days before experiencing the rash that is associated with the virus.

The department added, “Control measures, such as restricted school attendance, participation in extracurricular activities, and instructing those who have symptoms to avoid contact with others, are designed to prevent unvaccinated people who have been exposed to the virus from infecting members of the general public while they are infectious.”

Wiest and Jerome’s father, Bill Kunkel, told The Washington Post that the health department is overreacting, and his son is fine: “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?”