News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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November 14, 2012

Lack of vaccinations sends 71 students home

Total of 220 Vigo students excluded beginning Tuesday because of chickenpox outbreak

TERRE HAUTE —

About 220 students had to be excluded from Vigo County schools Tuesday because they have not met chickenpox vaccination requirements, said Ray Azar, director of student services.

No staff had to be excluded.

“Today we had to take the regretful step of excluding students from school, based on the mandate from the Indiana Department of Health and the local health department,” Azar said in a news conference. The immunization and exclusion requirements are the result of a chickenpox outbreak in Vigo County.

As of Thursday, Vigo County has had 69 cases of chickenpox, according to the county health department. Most involved students in Vigo County schools, while others involved children in child care facilities.

Those VCSC students not optimally immunized will be excluded for 21 days from the last documented case at school, per state Department of Health regulations. That will vary by school.

Depending on the school, some excluded students would be able to return later this week, while for others, it might be the full 21 days, Azar said. “That could be extended if we continue to get more cases of chickenpox.”

Of the 220 excluded students, 71 actually went to school Tuesday morning. Parents were notified and asked to pick up their children, and families were given a letter explaining why students had to be excluded, Azar said. Central office staff were on hand to assist.

“We think it went as smoothly as it could have gone,” Azar said. “It’s not a pleasant situation but we’re going to make the best of it and hopefully our schools will be safe when they return.”

One school had just one exclusion, while another had more than 20. Some schools did not have any exclusions because they have not had any cases of chickenpox.

Initially, the district estimated that about 1,300 students and staff faced possible exclusion because they needed additional immunizations, records of immunization or documentation they’ve previously had chickenpox.

The numbers were “reduced drastically from what I expected,” Azar said. He attributed it to “a lot of hard work on everybody’s part.”

He credited the district’s nursing services department for efforts to educate and notify families and help organize shot clinics. They also worked hard to keep documentation up-to-date so principals would know on Tuesday which students or staff needed to be excluded.

Last weekend, principals were contacting parents “to do everything we could to help avoid exclusions,” said Carol Lucas, VCSC chairwoman of nursing services. “That is sure not our goal. Our goal is to get our kids immunized and to keep them in school.”

On Friday, when turnout at the free clinic at South Vigo High School was not as good as officials hoped, more calls were made to parents alerting them to the free clinic Saturday and the exclusion that would take place if students were not optimally immunized, Azar said.

He noted that many parents did take advantage of the Veterans Day holiday Monday to get their children immunized at a doctor’s office or other medical clinic. Those parents then brought the immunization records to school Tuesday morning.

“We saw a lot of data coming into schools today,” Azar said.

For those students who have been excluded, “we’ve asked every school to develop a take-home pack for the students” with their school work, Azar said. The district is asking parents to work with their children.

But more important, “We urge parents to get into compliance with the law so we can welcome their children back as soon as possible,” Azar said.

Some parents, including Casey Bennett, question the need for the mass immunizations and exclusions for chickenpox. “It seems like an over-reaction,” he said in a telephone interview. “When I grew up, kids just got chickenpox, and now we’re all freaking out” because the numbers of children getting the disease are higher than in recent years.

“It’s not polio, it’s chickenpox,” Bennett said. “It worries me that we’re vaccinating kids for such low-level things these days. We may be making those low-level things stronger.”

He did get his two school-age children to the South Vigo clinic over the weekend, and they did attend school Tuesday.

According to Lucas, in the late 1990s, there was yearly documentation of  hospitalizations and deaths of children from complications associated with chickenpox.

When a vaccine was developed, laws were put in place requiring children who attend schools to be vaccinated.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the nation’s top authority on immunizations, recommends the chickenpox vaccination, and it also is now required by the state of Indiana.

“The thought is if there is a vaccine that can prevent children from dying, that’s what they needed to do,” Lucas said.

Also Tuesday, the Vigo County Health Department clarified whether exclusions should occur at day care/preschools and private schools.

In the event of one or more cases of chickenpox at one of those settings:

“Day cares and pre-schools need to practice exclusion for children who are not optimally immunized (for 21 days from the last case). We do not have means in place to monitor day cares and preschools unless they report it to us,” said Joni Wise, health department administrator.

If there is a case of chickenpox, those day care and preschool facilities should strongly encourage families to have children optimally immunized, she said.

As for private/parochial schools:

“They should fall under the same guidelines as the VCSC because the students that attend them still have to meet the state immunization guidelines for school entry,” Wise stated. If there is a case of chickenpox, the school should exclude students not optimally immunized for 21 days from the last case.

“Our private/parochial schools in Vigo County are very conscious about health issues, so I wouldn’t anticipate any issues with them protecting the community during an outbreak,” Wise stated.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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