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Wayne County is one of four counties in Michigan that have seen a recent outbreak of chickenpox.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday the cases have been mainly among unvaccinated school children in Wayne, Grand Traverse, Calhoun and Muskegon counties.

In several of the cases, children had to be hospitalized.

The highly contagious disease, also known as varicella, is caused by a virus in the herpes family and is characterized by an itchy, blistery rash, department officials said. They urged parents to make sure children have had their required vaccinations to protect against the virus.

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Chickenpox can be spread mainly by coughing and sneezing.

“Since the introduction of the chickenpox vaccine 20 years ago, the immunization has greatly reduced the incidence of illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths related to the disease,” said Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical executive with the health department. “Michigan has seen a 97 percent decline in chickenpox in that time.

“The best thing you can do to protect your loved ones and community against chickenpox is to make sure your family is immunized.”

Children are required to be up-to-date on their immunization shots before starting school in Michigan, but parents can opt out of the requirement by notifying local health departments.

In November, more than 35 unimmunized students at two Traverse City elementary schools were kept out of classes because they had contracted chickenpox. In March, nearly a dozen Birmingham Public Schools students missed classes because they were not vaccinated against chickenpox and three of their peers have contracted the virus.

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