DHEC reports two chickenpox outbreaks this month, urges families to stay updated on vaccinations

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Published: Mar. 26, 2022 at 5:05 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The number of South Carolina kids getting the shots they need for school is falling, and DHEC now reports the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases in the state.

Two chickenpox outbreaks were reported to the state health agency earlier this month, the first since 2020. The first was reported at a Lowcountry childcare provider on March 4, and the second was reported six days later at an Upstate elementary school. In the case of the childcare provider, DHEC notes some children there may not be old enough to be fully or even partially vaccinated against the virus.

The highest number of chickenpox outbreaks in a single year recently was four in 2019.

“It’s concerning because very recently, within a very short time period within about a week, we had in the two different ends of the state two outbreaks reported,” DHEC Public Health Director Dr. Brannon Traxler said.

While chickenpox was much more common in the past, with the itching and rash all too familiar for many and causing thousands of hospitalizations a year, the disease is now preventable, thanks to vaccination.

“If you have very, very high vaccination rates, then you’re not going to have many reported cases, and even if there are cases that are sporadic, they’re going to have much less opportunity to become a true outbreak,” Traxler said.

But statewide data reveals fewer kids are up-to-date on their shots.

DHEC reports the percentage of school-age children who had a valid immunization certificate on file with their school was 98.1% during the 2014-2015 school year.

But this school year, that rate has fallen down to 95.7%.

Traxler said around the 95% threshold, public health officials become concerned about increased cases, outbreaks, and spread.

While this decline predates the pandemic — state law allows for religious and medical exemptions from school vaccination requirements — Traxler said they do know more families were nervous to go to the doctor earlier in the pandemic, so some kids fell behind on this care.

“A large part of the message now is making sure they understand that these are safe places to go, that they are not putting their or their child’s health at risk at any time by going in there, and that it’s critically important to get caught up now,” Traxler said.

If there is a chicken pox outbreak in a school or daycare, everyone who is infected or unvaccinated has to stay home. Unvaccinated people exposed to the virus must be excluded for 21 days after the last case is identified, or they can return once they have received a dose of the vaccine appropriate for their age.

At least 70 people missed school or work because of the two outbreaks this month, according to DHEC.

People can make an appointment to receive certain vaccines, including flu, pneumonia, chickenpox, and tetanus, at one of DHEC’s county health departments or by calling 1-855-472-3432.

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