In a move experts say is medically unsound — and can be dangerous — Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin said in a radio interview Tuesday that he deliberately exposed all nine of his children to chickenpox so they would catch the disease and become immune.
“Every single one of my kids had the chickenpox,” Bevin said in an interview with WKCT, a Bowling Green talk radio station. “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.”
Two medical experts called the practice unsafe and unwise.
“I would never recommend or advise it,” said Dr. Robert Jacobson, a pediatrician and expert in vaccines and childhood diseases at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “It’s just dangerous.”
A Bevin spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He and his wife, Glenna, have nine children, four adopted.
In the interview, Bevin also suggested that the government stay out of mandating vaccines. In Kentucky, varicella (chickenpox) is among vaccines mandated for all children entering kindergarten, though parents may seek religious exemptions or provide medical proof that a child has already had the disease.
“And I think, why are we forcing kids to get it?” Bevin said in the radio interview, speaking about the chickenpox vaccine. “If you are worried about your child getting chickenpox or whatever else, vaccinate your child … But for some people, and for some parents, for some reason they choose otherwise. This is America. The federal government should not be forcing this upon people. They just shouldn’t.”
Jacobson said he recommends vaccines as a safe and effective way to prevent disease.
“We’re no longer living in the 17th century,” he said. “I really recommend to my parents that they vaccinate their children, that they do it in a timely manner, and they recognize they are doing the right thing for their children.”
Bevin’s comments followed news reports this week of a chickenpox outbreak at a Northern Kentucky Catholic school, where at least one student reported not being vaccinated for religious reasons.
Chickenpox, an infectious disease with itchy skin blisters and fever, is preventable by a vaccine that became publicly available in 1995.
Dr. Dennis Clements, the chief medical officer at Duke Children’s Hospital, who has written about the deliberate-exposure practice popular with some parents, said he strongly advises against it.
“A lot of parents do expose their children so they can get it and get it over with,” Clements said. “The vaccine is much safer, and if the vaccine is given to a child, they are much less likely to have shingles as an adult.”
In a 2005 article, Clements wrote that parents have asked him throughout his practice whether its a good idea to expose their children to another child with chickenpox “to get it over with.” Clements, in the article, said he recommends the vaccine which was licensed in 1995.
While some children may get over the disease and appear fine, that isn’t always the case and can sometimes be fatal, Clements said in an email.
“It is true that most children exposed to chickenpox will get an illness from which they will recover — but remember you are talking to the survivors,” he said in an email. “Those children that were exposed and died have parents that would probably say something else.”
Jacobson said shingles, a related viral infection that emerges later in life and can be extremely painful, is just one of the risks of skipping the vaccine. Other risks include serious secondary skin infection, he said.
Before vaccination was available, chickenpox killed as many as 100 adults and children a year.
“I think it is taking a big risk that you don’t need to take,” Jacobson said. “It’s not just a risk your children are going to have. You’re putting other people in the community at risk because of your decision.”
In the case involving Assumption Academy in Walton, after a chickenpox outbreak among 32 students, the Northern Kentucky Health Department on March 14 instructed students without proof of vaccination or immunity against chickenpox to not attend school in order to “prevent further spread of this illness,” according to the Cincinnati Enquirer
That prompted a lawsuit by Jerome Kunkel, a senior at Assumption Academy, who claimed health officials violated his freedom of religion and other rights by ordering students without the vaccine to not attend school or extracurricular activities.
Kunkel, according to the lawsuit filed Thursday in Boone County Circuit Court, opposes the vaccine on religious grounds “due to its being derived from aborted fetal cells.”
Jacobson said it is true that the vaccine was developed in the 1960s with cells from an infected fetus that had been aborted.
But modern vaccines given to children do not contain those cells and no aborted fetuses are used to produce vaccine. Jacobson said officials with the Roman Catholic church have endorsed use of the vaccine and support it as safe, effective and not a violation of any church tenants.
Manufacture of the vaccine does not require aborted fetal cells, Jacobson said. “Nor do cells from the original aborted fetus end up in the vaccine a person is giving a child.”
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