An outbreak of chickenpox in Soldotna and Homer has state public health officials worried about the high number of local children who are not receiving vaccinations.
An above-average number of reported cases of chickenpox, varicella by its scientific name, have worried state public health officials enough that they sent out a statewide alert Friday. So far, in just the month of September, nine cases of chickenpox been reported on the Kenai Peninsula, three of them in Soldotna and six in Homer.
“Chicken pox is a very contagious disease. Most cases are usually mild. In certain populations, like healthy older children and young adults, it can actually cause severe illness,” Dr. Brian Yablon, of the state’s Epidemiology department, said.
“Any time we see an increase in chicken pox activity, that’s concerning for us,” Yablon said.
All of the cases on the peninsula involve children ranging in age from infants to 14 years old. Yablong said that in Homer, the outbreak has gone from being an isolated incident at one or two schools to becoming an issue for the entire community, but did not offer specifics on which building were affected.
So why are kids in Homer coming down with chickenpox?
Yablon said it may be because many of them are not getting vaccinated. A vaccine for chickenpox was introduced in the 1990s and the number of chickenpox cases has steadily dropped ever since. Public health officials, including Yablon, recommend that all children receive two doses of the vaccine – once when they turn one year old and another when they are about to enter kindergarten.
“The cases that we’ve seen in Homer are all in children who are preschool or school age who are unvaccinated,” Yablong said. ”Some of the schools in that area have relatively high rates of exemptions from vaccines where as many as 30 percent of children may not be vaccinated,” he said.
Like many public health officials across the country, Yablon is also concerned that misinformation about vaccines being tied to autism are leading many concerned parents to opt out of vaccinations for their children.
“I think it’s very unfortunate that those innuendos about vaccines having any kind of link to autism were put out there,” Yablon said. ”That’s a well known hoax and there’s no evidence at all that vaccines are associated with autism.”
The benefit of the chickenpox vaccine is preventing a disease that can cause skin lesions, severe scarring, bacterial infections, pneumonia and encephalitis.
Dr. Yablon recommends that parents in Homer and Soldotna keep an eye on their children, looking for signs of chickenpox, which include the well-known red dots or blisters but can also include a low-grade fever. It is important that children exhibiting symptoms not be sent back to school.