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Chickenpox in rear-view mirror?

Nearly three weeks removed from its most recent documented case, the Ashland School District appears to have finally vanquished the chickenpox threat that exploded into a full-fledged outbreak in early December.

The Jackson County Health and Human Services division isn’t taking any chances, however, which is why there will be at least one more free chickenpox vaccination clinic from 8 to 11 a.m. Friday at the United Methodist Church (175 N. Main St., Ashland).

The service will be provided by La Clinica, which held another free immunization clinic last Friday. Full protection from chickenpox requires a two-shot series, but students who have received one shot before or after exposure will be allowed to go to school, according to Jackson County medical director Dr. Jim Shames.

“We’re trying to make this as easy as possible,” said Shames, adding that 10 children were vaccinated by La Clinica last Friday. “The incubation period for chickenpox is 10 to 21 days, so you can’t transmit chickenpox to someone else on day zero through 10 after contact with the disease. So there’s not a reason to exclude a child from school within the first 10 days after exposure. What we don’t want is for them to then develop the disease and then pass it on to others. So we’re encouraging parents to get kids immunized during that time period and they don’t even have to miss any school.”

The district’s last reported case was discovered on Jan. 2, according to ASD’s director of student services, Samuel Bogdanove. Before that, a single case was reported on Dec. 31. Both those children are now back in school.

Overall, said Bogdanove, Ashland parents responded to the outbreak by stepping up their immunization efforts. Though he didn’t have exact figures, he said the district had about a 25-percent non-immunity rate — non-immune students are those who are not immunized and have not contracted chickenpox — prior to the outbreak. That’s down to about 20 percent now.

“That means that more kids can be in school, and that’s a good thing,” Bogdanove said. “We really appreciate how responsible the parents have been, letting us know when their kids are ill and keeping their kids who may have chickenpox home. That’s been a very positive thing, how responsive the parents have been.”

Ashland School District nurse Belinda Brown detailed the district’s chickenpox outbreak, from its genesis to its eventual fade-out, at the Ashland School Board meeting Jan. 15. According to Brown, the district’s first case, reported in October, did not cause alarm because a “handful of cases” per year is not out of the ordinary. There was another case at Walker two weeks later. Then in November, a student at Ashland Middle School contracted chickenpox and that child’s sibling, a student at Bellview Elementary, became sick soon thereafter.

It spread to Willow Wind Community Learning Center with two cases in early December. On the afternoon of Dec. 8, Brown learned from Willow Wind Principal Debra Schaffer Pew that the school suddenly had 10 active cases of chickenpox. Brown called the Jackson County Health Department the following day, and the next day Brown, Bogdanove and representatives from JCHD met at Willow Wind to devise a strategy to stop it from spreading further.

“At that point in time we strategized about what could we do here,” Brown said. “This is a vaccine-preventable disease. We have a large number in a small area. Any time you have more than five cases in one building you consider the entire building to have been exposed. That, in combination with knowing our high exemption rates, was a little bit alarming for us.”

About 70 percent of students in Ashland schools were vaccinated in 2013, far below the national average. When it comes to chickenpox, Brown said there’s a perception that it’s not that dangerous, though that isn’t the case for everybody.

“There’s kind of a thought around chickenpox that it’s not a big deal,” she said. “But we also know that we have people in our community that it is a really big deal for. It’s dangerous for people that are pregnant, anyone that has a compromised immune system. It’s a much harder illness to get as an adult, so if you weren’t exposed or vaccinated as an adult you can get really sick with it. So we’re trying to protect those people in our community and we have people in each of those categories in each of our school communities.”

Brown said that the health department’s tighter restrictions only led to two students being held out of school. One was allowed to come back today and the other was a high school student who returned earlier. Brown added that the restrictions put in place are designed to protect the community as a whole, not just the schools.

“I’ve had lots of conversations with lots of parents who question, ‘Well, I got the chickenpox.’ But when they really listen and they hear about that and they think about the people in their school communities, most people do know somebody (who’s at risk), if you think about it. We have kids under cancer treatment right now. We have kids with immune conditions. We have staff members in that same grouping. And we have people that are pregnant.

“It’s the community at large that this has impacted. It’s not just a school issue.”

While Ashland may finally be wrapping up its fight against chickenpox, another threat has local health officials on alert and in many ways poses an even greater danger to the local population.

According to CBS News, more than 50 cases of measles have been linked to the outbreak that started at Disney theme parks in Southern California, and there has been an increase in cases among people who did not visit the parks. Another vaccine-preventable virus, measles can spread through a sneeze or cough and can remain airborne and live on surfaces for up to two hours. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 90 percent of people who are close to an infected person will also become infected.

According to CBS News, 41 of the people who came down with measles during the most recent California outbreak, which has spread to Washington state, Colorado and Mexico, were not vaccinated.

Southern Oregon has so far dodged that bullet, but Shames says he’s monitoring the situation, and he’s concerned.

“What’s happened is, we’ve reached a critical mass of unimmunized children and it’s putting the kids at risk,” he said. “I think we’re going to start seeing cases of various vaccine-preventable diseases. I hope that’s not the case with measles, but it’s quite possible that we’ll see that. And it’s a more serious disease, so the reaction from a public health perspective may be more significant.

“The problem with measles is that there’s a mortality that’s associated with it, there are disabilities associated with it, more so than with chickenpox. And it is the most highly contagious disease. So we might find ourselves being forced to restrict classroom by classroom instead of school by school, and that would have a pretty significant impact, I think.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.

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