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Debate Over Vaccinations Heats Up In Kentucky


Gov. Matt Bevin made national news this week when he said he deliberately exposed his nine children to chickenpox so that they would catch the disease and become immune.   

During an interview with Bowling Green radio station WKCT Tuesday, Bevin said his kids got the highly contagious disease from a neighbor.

“They got the chickenpox on purpose,” he said. “We found a neighbor that had it and then went and made sure every one of my kids was exposed to it and they got it. They were miserable for a few days, and they all turned out fine.”

Earlier this week, an unvaccinated student at Our Lady of Assumption Academy in northern Kentucky sued the the Northern Kentucky Health Department after he was barred from extracurricular activities. School officials say more than 30 students have fallen ill since February, prompting the local health department to require proof of vaccination or immunity in order to attend school and related activities, or wait until 21 days after the last infection.

During his interview with WKCT, Bevin said if parents are worried about chickenpox then they should get their kids vaccinated. But he questioned whether the government should force people to do so.

"Why are we forcing kids to get it? If you are worried about your child getting chickenpox or whatever else, vaccinate your child,” Bevin said. “And in many instances, those vaccinations make great sense. But for some people, and for some parents, for some reason they choose otherwise."

The chickenpox vaccine was introduced in the United States in the mid-90s, but before that, most children in the U.S. got the virus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the early 90s as many as 13,000 people were hospitalized each year with complications from chickenpox and around 150 people died every year. The disease is highly contagious. Serious complications from the disease  can include pneumonia, bacterial infections and infection or inflammation of the brain, according to the CDC.

Dr. Marc Grella, a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital, said even if people don’t experience serious complications from the chickenpox, like Bevin’s kids, that doesn’t mean  they aren’t a threat to others, especially certain groups of people.

“So the bigger worry for a lot of people when the child gets chickenpox is, is there someone elderly in the home, is there someone who is pregnant because pregnant women have higher complication rates from chickenpox,” Grella said.

He said babies are also at high risk, as well as people with compromised immune systems, like those receiving chemotherapy.

“Not getting children routinely vaccinated is asking for trouble,” Grella said.

Vaccination Rates In Kentucky

In Kentucky, kindergarteners are required to get the chickenpox vaccine. But according to the 2018 state Immunization Survey report, 91.6 percent of kindergarteners were vaccinated  – that’s short of the goal set by the state of 95 percent.

Several county school systems reported very low rates of vaccination, according to the report. In Garrard County, almost 68 percent of kindergarteners received chickenpox vaccines, while in Carroll County the rate was about 77 percent.

While the mandate exists, enforcement is up to local school districts. In several counties, data show that schools simply reported that students didn’t have their certifications.

Grella said that’s a problem.

“So although every school probably will tell you that children have to have chickenpox vaccine to start that school, children aren't always excluded from the school if they don't get it done,” Grella said.

Here's a map of Kentucky vaccination rates, by county:


Map by Caitlin McGlade. Data from Kentucky Department for Public Health, vaccination rates of kindergarteners in Kentucky during the 2017-2018 school year. 

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.