Remember Chickenpox Parties? Kentucky Governor Says He Let His 9 Children Get the Virus

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Remember Chickenpox Parties? Kentucky Governor Says He Let His 9 Children Get the Virus

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Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin spoke at the Capitol building, in Frankfort, Ky. last month.CreditCreditBryan Woolston/Associated Press

By Julie Bosman

Amid a renewed national conversation about childhood vaccinations, Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky said this week that he and his wife made sure all nine of their children got chickenpox.

“Every single one of my kids had the chickenpox,” Mr. Bevin said in an interview on Tuesday with a radio station in Bowling Green, Ky. “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 had it as children. They were miserable for a few days, and they all turned out fine.”

Experts said that the practice Mr. Bevin described was antiquated, a holdover from the days before 1995, when a vaccine for chickenpox became publicly available. Back then, so-called chickenpox parties were set up to spread the disease from one child to the next, under the belief that contracting chickenpox as a young child was safer than as an adult.

Doctors said the method can lead to dangerous complications or death. Still, Tara C. Smith, a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University in Ohio who studies infectious diseases, said that despite warnings from medical experts and the availability of vaccines, the practice of deliberately exposing children to disease continues.

Many times people have arranged chickenpox parties via Facebook or forced children to suck on lollipops contaminated by a child who has chickenpox, she said.

“Chickenpox can cause pneumonia, it can cause secondary skin infections, it can cause encephalitis,” Dr. Smith said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues regular reminders to the public that the chickenpox vaccine is safe and effective, and in most children causes no side effects. The vast majority of parents in the United States now choose to vaccinate their children against chickenpox.

Since children cannot receive the first of two doses of the chickenpox vaccine until they are at least 1 year old, babies younger than 1 are vulnerable to contracting the disease. It can kill babies, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

States have laws requiring school immunizations, but many states allow exemptions for religious reasons and a smaller number also permit exemptions for unspecified personal or philosophical reasons. Some may be connected to a larger anti-vaccination movement, including concerns that vaccines lead to autism, an idea that has been widely debunked.

The issue emerged in Kentucky in recent days after a student at a Catholic school sued the Northern Kentucky Health Department, claiming it violated his First Amendment rights when it prevented him from participating in basketball because he refused to be vaccinated against chickenpox. An outbreak of chickenpox — 32 cases — had been reported at the school, Assumption Academy in Walton, Ky.

Filed on behalf of the student, Jerome Kunkel, a high school senior and the captain of the basketball team, the lawsuit argued that banning him from playing violated his right to freedom of religion. Being vaccinated, the suit said, would go against Mr. Kunkel’s religious beliefs as a practicing Catholic, because the vaccine contains “aborted fetal cells.”

The C.D.C. says that before the vaccine was available, close to four million people contracted the illness in the United States each year. More than 10,000 people were hospitalized; more than 100 died. A person with chickenpox can develop as many as 500 blisters, the agency says.

People who have had chickenpox are at risk of contracting shingles, a viral infection that can lead to vision loss, as adults.

While most people can recall a mild interaction with chickenpox from their own childhoods, Dr. Smith’s own family has not been so lucky: An uncle died from chickenpox and her grandmother contracted shingles when she was in her 80s, which led to pneumonia and her subsequent death, Dr. Smith said.

In the radio interview in Kentucky, Mr. Bevin, the governor, who is 52 and a Republican, suggested that the government should not be involved in regulating vaccines.

“For some people, and for some parents, for some reason they choose otherwise,” he said of those who avoid vaccinations. “This is America. The federal government should not be forcing this upon people. They just shouldn’t.”

Mr. Bevin’s spokeswoman did not immediately return an email seeking comment. Mr. Bevin’s wife, Glenna, is a registered nurse, according to his official biography.

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