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Birmingham students asked to stay home over chickenpox

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Birmingham — Nearly a dozen students are missing nine days of classes at Birmingham Public Schools because they are not vaccinated against chickenpox and three of their peers have contracted the virus, officials said Friday.

The Michigan Department of Community Health directed Birmingham schools to ask 10 students who aren’t vaccinated and in the classrooms of the three students with chickenpox to stay home until April 14, said Birmingham schools spokeswoman Marcia Wilkinson.

If the children get vaccinated, they could come back to school on Monday.

It is unclear if any families opted for vaccination. For those who have to stay out, it means that students will miss nine days of instruction since Birmingham schools’ spring break begins next Friday and ends April 13.

Some parents who have to keep their unvaccinated children home understood, Wilkinson said.

“But we had a few parents who were concerned about their children missing that much school,” she said. “We have to protect all of our students.”

Chickenpox — a highly contagious disease that causes itchy red spots on the body — emerged among three of Birmingham’s 8,200 students, prompting an email to parents this week urging parents to keep children without the vaccine to stay home.

The three students with chickenpox include a first-grader in Pearce Elementary School, a sixth-grader in Derby Middle School and a 12th-grader at Seaholm High School. Wilkinson declined to say if the three children had been vaccinated against the virus.

“Chickenpox is a highly contagious virus and it can lead to serious complications, especially in infants and people with weakened immune systems,” said Jennifer Smith, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Community Health. “The vaccination is the best we have against chickenpox.”

Suzanne Waltman, president and founder of Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccines, said that Birmingham school system is following the law by asking parents to keep their unvaccinated children home.

“But it must be upsetting that their kids will miss nine days of school,” she said.

The varicella vaccine, which protects against chickenpox, became available in 1995. Michigan has required the vaccine for children in licensed child care centers since 2000 and for schools since 2002.

That has led to a dramatic decline in the virus, from 5,200 cases in 2006 to 725 in 2014, according to data from the Michigan Department of Community Health.

Before the chickenpox vaccine became available, it was a common virus in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 4 million people contracted chickenpox annually in the early 1990s, and between 10,500 and 13,000 people were hospitalized. Every year, up to 150 people, mostly those who were previously healthy, died from chickenpox.