Maine seeing record cases of chickenpox among children

A child with characteristic chickenpox lesions. Source: U.S. CDC

A child with characteristic chickenpox lesions. Source: U.S. CDC

A record number of Maine schoolchildren have been infected with chickenpox this school year, according to state health officials.

From September 2014 through mid-May 2015, 84 cases of the highly contagious virus were reported in children, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s nearly double the 44 cases reported during the same period of the 2013-14 school year.

Those cases represent four outbreaks (three or more cases in one setting) of chickenpox in schools and daycares this school year, more than in any previous year, according to Maine CDC.

Reports of the itchy little blisters have turned up in every Maine county — with the exception of Washington County.

Health officials blame low vaccination rates. Of the cases this year, 68 percent occurred in unvaccinated or under-vaccinated kids, including four children too young to receive the vaccine.

About 90 percent of Maine students are vaccinated against chickenpox, or varicella, said Dr. Chris Pezzullo, acting chief health officer of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. That ranks Maine fifth among the six New England states and slightly below the national average, he said.

“Whenever you have 10 percent of students who aren’t covered, there’s the possibility that they can get wild chickenpox and they can spread it to people who are also unimmunized,” he said.

Federal data show the percentage of Maine parents choosing to skip their children’s vaccines is on the rise. Maine’s vaccination opt-out rate was the fourth-highest in the nation during the 2013-2014 school year.

While most of us remember chickenpox as a childhood annoyance, babies, adults, and people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk for complications. The lesions can open up the body to potentially serious secondary infections.

The vast majority of children recover from the illness.

Caused by the varicella-zoster virus, chickenpox spreads in the air through coughing or sneezing, or by touching or breathing in the virus particles from the blisters. Infected people are contagious from two days before their rash starts until all blisters have scabbed over.

Vaccination is the best method of protection, according to health officials. The CDC recommends children receive two doses of the vaccine — the first at 12 to 15 months old and the second at 4 to 6 years old.

Some people vaccinated against chickenpox can still get the disease, but the symptoms are usually milder, according to the CDC.

If your child isn’t immunized and he or she has been exposed to chickenpox, get the vaccine anyway, Dr. Colette Sabbagh, a pediatrician with Eastern Maine Medical Center, suggested in November, when chickenpox broke out in Penobscot County. Studies have shown there’s still a benefit if the vaccine is administered during the incubation period for the disease, which lasts 14 to 21 days, she said.

One last warning: If your kid gets chickenpox, don’t give them aspirin to relieve the fever. Using aspirin or products containing aspirin in children with chickenpox has been associated with Reye’s syndrome, a rare but severe disease that can cause sudden and dangerous swelling of the brain and liver.

Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.