A student sued because he didn't want the chickenpox vaccine. Then he got chickenpox

A Kentucky student who refused the chickenpox vaccine contracted the infection two months after he sued the local health department because of a policy temporarily barring students who aren't immune against chickenpox from going to classes.

Posted: May 9, 2019 3:20 PM
Updated: May 9, 2019 3:20 PM

Two months after going to court over a chickenpox policy, an unvaccinated teen came down with the illness, his lawyer said Wednesday.

Jerome Kunkel sued the local health department because of a policy temporarily barring students who aren't immune against chickenpox from coming to classes and extracurricular activities at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart/Assumption Academy in Walton, Kentucky.

The high school senior refused the vaccine, citing his faith. Kunkel's father, Bill, told CNN affiliate WLWT they object to the particular vaccine because he believed it was derived from "aborted fetuses."

The chickenpox vaccine was created using cells descended from those of a fetus terminated in the early 1960s.

Kunkel contracted chickenpox last week and has recovered, his attorney Christopher Wiest told CNN by phone Wednesday. Kunkel went back to school on Wednesday.

"Jerome is in a catch-up mode," Wiest said. "He feels like they kind of ruined his senior year."

Kunkel has been out of school since mid-March, Wiest said.

The Northern Kentucky Health Department announced a policy in March after a chickenpox outbreak affected 32 people, which is 13% of the student body, at the school. Students who weren't vaccinated, or were not immune, were asked to stay out of school for at least 21 days after the last case of the virus, the health department said.

Kunkel filed the lawsuit over the health department's decision, especially because it affected his basketball season.

"The fact that I can't finish my senior year of basketball, like our last couple games is pretty devastating. I mean you go through four years of high school playing basketball, but you look forward to your senior year," he told CNN affiliate WLWT in March.

None of the basketball team members were vaccinated for chickenpox, the school's principal had told a health official, according to the judge's ruling obtained by CNN affiliate WXIX.

Only 18% of the school's students are fully vaccinated, a school official told the local health department

A Kentucky judge rejected Kunkel's request to prevent the health department from enforcing its school and activities ban in April.

Kunkel's attorney said preventing the students from going to school fell short of containing the illness.

"Their ban didn't stop these kids from going to church together," Wiest said Wednesday. "Their ban is going to be ineffective from the start. The quickest way to get them back to school is to get it naturally."

The Northern Kentucky Health Department expressed concern over Wiest's comments about students contracting the virus so they may become immune.

"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 department said in a statement Wednesday. "A person who has contracted chickenpox can be infectious for up to 2 days before experiencing the rash that is associated with the virus."

Barring students from attending school and after-school activities can help prevent the spread of the disease. They "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 statement said.

The health department also worried that the comments may be downplaying the severity of the dangers of the chickenpox virus, which is known as varicella.

Chickenpox is a highly contagious disease that causes a blister-like rash, itching, fever and tiredness, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus spreads by contact with infected individuals.

The CDC recommends against people intentionally exposing children to chickenpox in hope that they get the disease.

When asked if Kunkel regretted not getting vaccinated, Wiest said, "These are people of deep and abiding faith, of strong religious beliefs. At no point in time do they regret not getting vaccinated."

"They believe this is the right cause. They regret what the health department did."

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