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Health Department: Attorney's Advice on Chickenpox Not Appropriate

The Northern Kentucky Health Department responded Wednesday to a comment from local attorney Chris Wiest related to ongoing legal battle between a student and the department's order that students not be permitted to attend Assumption Academy in Walton if they have not been vaccinated against chickenpox.

Jerome Kunkel, an 18-year old student at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart/Assumption Academy, was not vaccinated when a chickenpox outbreak hit the school. The Northern Kentucky Health Department forbade affected and non-vaccinated students from attending class or activities.

Kunkel sued, losing in the first round in local court, and has since appealed.

Kunkel came down with chickenpox recently.

Wiest, a former mayor of Fort Mitchell, said that Kunkel was doing fine, though he was "a little itchy." Additionally, Wiest told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “About half my clients have come down with it since we filed the case. … I flat-out told the moms and dads the quickest path to resolving this is having them contract chickenpox.” 

The health department called the statement "alarming and disappointing."

"Wiest’s comments are dismissive of the severity of this virus, and his recent announcement that he is advising his clients to actively contract the virus so that they can become individually immune to it is deeply concerning to the Northern Kentucky Health Department," the department said in a statement.

"This is clearly not appropriate medical advice, according to physicians and infectious disease experts," the statement continued. "Chickenpox, also known as varicella, is an acute infectious disease. When introduced in an unvaccinated population, the virus can rapidly spread, causing serious, even deadly consequences, to people who are particularly at risk, such as infants, adolescents, pregnant women, and adults and children with weakened immune systems, including those receiving cancer treatment."

The health department noted that Wiest's suggested tactic "may provide an individual with future immunity from chickenpox, this infected person can easily spread the virus to other, unsuspecting people, including those particularly vulnerable to this potentially life-threatening infection."

"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 2 days before experiencing the rash that is associated with the virus. 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."

The Northern Kentucky Health Department said that it will continue to follow the established medical guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other nationally acclaimed experts in infectious disease control in responding to the chickenpox outbreak among Assumption Academy students.

"Our first concern is always protection of the public health and implementing reasonable, medically-approved control measures that are designed to safeguard our region’s population, including those who are most vulnerable to the threat of infectious disease," the statement said.

-Staff report