Health officials in Buncombe County, NC are reporting a varicella (chickenpox) outbreak at Asheville Waldorf School. As of Friday, 36 students have come down with the contagious viral infection.

This is the largest outbreak of chickenpox in North Carolina since a vaccine for the virus became available in 1995. Local media reports the school has one of the highest vaccination religious exemption rates in the state.

A number of varicella, or chickenpox lesions on the face of a young child/CDC
A number of varicella, or chickenpox lesions on the face of a young child/CDC

Health officials continue to monitor the situation and strongly encourage everyone in the community to do their part to reduce the spread of this outbreak.

Large reduction in chickenpox cases and hospitalizations due to vaccines: Study

The best way to prevent becoming infected with chickenpox is to be fully immunized. Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, the Buncombe County Medical Director, wants the community to be a part of the shield of protection that immunizations provide. “We want to be clear: vaccination is the best protection from chickenpox. Two doses of varicella vaccine can offer significant protection against childhood chickenpox and shingles as an adult. When we see high numbers of unimmunized children and adults, we know that an illness like chickenpox can spread easily throughout the community- into our playgrounds, grocery stores, and sports teams.”

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Chickenpox is easily passed from one person to another through the air by coughing or sneezing or through the fluid from a blister of a person who has chickenpox.  Although it is usually not a serious illness, it often causes children and their parents to miss days at school and work. Most cases of chickenpox in healthy children are treated with bed rest, fluids, and fever control.

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Chickenpox can be more severe and cause more complications in immunocompromised persons, children younger than 1 year of age and adults. Severe complications include bacterial skin infections, bloodstream infections, pneumonia, encephalitis (infection of the brain) and death. It is important to be aware that even healthy children and adults may develop serious complications and die from varicella. Another high-risk group is pregnant women who, if they become ill with varicella, can have pregnancy complications. Not only is chickenpox painful, but once you have been infected with chickenpox, you are at risk of getting shingles later in life, which is also very painful and can cause lasting chronic pain in adults.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chickenpox is particularly dangerous to infants, pregnant women those with compromised immune systems, such as people who are HIV positive or coming out of cancer treatment.

How to Care for Children With Chickenpox

“People don’t think it’s a serious disease, and for the majority of people it’s not. But it’s not that way for everybody,” Mullendore said. Two to three out of every 1,000 children infected with chickenpox required care in a hospital, she said.

People who are infected or who have been exposed to chickenpox should stay away from school, work and group activities where they could put others at risk such as those with weakened immune systems or pregnant women.

It takes from 10-21 days to develop symptoms after being exposed to a person with chickenpox. Most symptoms appear after 14-16 days. Someone with chickenpox is contagious for 1 to 2 days before the rash starts. They will be contagious until all the blisters have formed scabs, usually 4 to 7 days after the rash began. A person who has never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine should get the vaccine as soon as possible after being exposed (ideally, within three days). The vaccine may prevent illness or prevent the disease from being as serious if given within this time frame. Receiving the vaccination may also prevent future illness from chickenpox.