Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 9:56 AM on Thursday, October 4, 2012

Homer, Soldotna see rise in chicken pox cases

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

Following a rise in chicken pox cases among unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated children, the Alaska Section of Epidemiology last week issued an alert urging parents to get children immunized. Six cases in Homer and three in Soldotna have been reported. In Homer, the cases for chicken pox, or varicella, occurred in children in three different clusters involving several schools and unrelated preschool age children.

"This suggests that there is ongoing transmission in the wider community, and that additional cases are likely to occur throughout the Kenai Peninsula," the alert said.

Since January, 50 confirmed and probable cases of chickenpox have been confirmed statewide.

The Epidemiology Section provided this information:

• Parents should see their medical providers for chickenpox immunization;

• Encourage parents whose children show symptoms, such as lesions and sores, to stay away from school until the sores have crusted over;

• Children up to age 18 can receive free vaccinations at the Homer Public Health Center;

• Children routinely should get their first vaccine between ages 12 to 15 months and their second dose between 4 to 6 years old;

Health officials did not identify the Homer schools affected, but in a letter to Homer High School parents, principal Dr. Allan Gee said one or more high school students have suspected chickenpox. Since 2009, vaccinations have been required for Alaska school children in grades six and under. High school students are an age group most at risk of getting chickenpox.

"The kids that are truly at risk are 16 to 20," said Gerri Yett, immunization program manager for the Epidemiology Section, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. "They're just young enough not to be exposed to natural disease, but old enough not to be required."

A chickenpox vaccine became available in 1994, Yett said. Most adults over age 30 have been exposed. Chicken pox is highly contagious and most children routinely suffered it before a vaccination became available. Usually, chicken pox is a mild illness with a rash, but it can cause serious complications and death, especially among high risk groups such as infants, adolescents, adults, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.

Chickenpox also can lead to shingles in middle-aged and elderly people, causing severe pain and lesions. A shingles, or herpes zoster, vaccine is available for uninsured and underinsured adults age 60 and older at public health centers.

The chickenpox vaccine is a live form of the virus that triggers an immune response against the disease. Vaccinated children still have the potential to get shingles as adults, but scientists speculate that most likely they will have little or no outbreak of shingles, Yett said.

"Most people look at this as an innocuous disease, but it isn't for all children," Yett said. "Plus you're putting your children at the misery of multiple outbreaks and shingles."

Under state law, parents can exempt children from vaccinations for medial or religious reasons. Yett said according to a survey, statewide about 7 percent of children in 2011 had medical or religious exemptions.

In lower Kenai Peninsula schools, the exemption rate for children varies between 3 and 30 percent by school, said Naomi Walsworth, health services coordinator for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Walsworth said the school district is working with parents and health workers to get children properly vaccinated.

"We're encouraging it and providing the information and hoping children get vaccinated," Walsworth said. "We want people to be aware of all the risk and make a good decision."

In an outbreak, children who only have gotten their first vaccine dose can get the second dose earlier than routinely administered. The recommended interval between the first and second dose is three months for children under 12 and four to eight weeks for children 12 and over.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.