State identifies Maine schools hit with chickenpox outbreaks

Source: U.S. CDC

Source: U.S. CDC

The state has released the names of three schools and a childcare facility where chickenpox broke out during the 2014-15 school year. While months have passed since the outbreaks occurred, the disclosure finally publicizes information that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has resisted releasing.

Both the Bangor Daily News and the Portland Press Herald requested the information after state health officials announced in June a record number of chickenpox cases among schoolchildren, but declined to identify the schools involved. DHHS continued to withhold the schools’ names despite both newspapers’ requests, filed under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, prompting the Press Herald to file a lawsuit.

As I explained in July, the agency argued that releasing the information could potentially identify a child who contracted an infectious illness, a privacy violation. Neither I nor the Press Herald asked for the names of children who were sickened, just those of the schools.

DHHS, which oversees the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, identified those schools to me on Oct. 5, and responded today to followup questions I asked.

Maine CDC defines an “outbreak” as three or more cases of an infectious disease in one setting.

The following three schools reported chickenpox outbreaks to Maine CDC during the 2014-15 school year:

  • Central High School in Corinth (5 cases)
  • Lisbon Community School (5 cases)
  • Seacoast Waldorf School in Eliot (9 cases)

The childcare facility that reported a chickenpox outbreak during the previous school year was:

  • The Children’s Center on Stevens Avenue in Portland (4 cases)

Those four outbreaks account for 23 of the record-setting 84 cases of chickenpox that Maine CDC warned the public about in June. The remaining 61 cases occurred in ones and twos, too few to be classified as part of an outbreak, according to DHHS.

Why did I request this information? Schools typically notify parents of outbreaks, so those most directly affected were likely aware of the chickenpox cases. But students, their families and school staff aren’t the only ones at risk. People with compromised immune systems — such as the elderly and those recovering from cancer treatment — also must be wary of outbreaks, among others.

This disclosure comes too late for those who could have taken additional steps to protect themselves. But I also wanted to check whether the outbreaks occurred at schools with high numbers of unvaccinated children. For the first time in Maine, anyone can look up vaccination rates at their local elementary and middle schools.

Of the 84 chickenpox cases last year, 68 percent occurred in unvaccinated or under-vaccinated kids, according to Maine CDC.

Still, gaps remain in the unprecedented school-by-school vaccination data. I’m left disappointed in my effort to cross-reference it with the names of schools that reported outbreaks.

  • Neither the Corinth school, as a high school, nor the daycare facility is included in the vaccination rate listings.
  • Seacoast Waldorf School also is omitted, possibly because the private institution didn’t submit its vaccination rates to the state.

That leaves the Lisbon Community School. The data show that parents opted against vaccines for 2.8 percent of kindergarteners and 1 percent of first-graders in 2014-15. That’s higher than public health officials like to see, but still relatively low compared to other schools in Maine.

Many students failed to get chickenpox booster shots, however, according to the state’s data.

Just over 93 percent of the school’s kindergarteners had received their first chickenpox, or varicella, vaccination, which is recommended between 12 and 15 months of age. But none received the booster shot, recommended between ages 4 and 6, according to the state’s data. A similar pattern occurred among first-graders, with nearly 98 percent receiving the first shot and none the booster immunization.

We’ll need data for more diseases and schools to draw any conclusions about whether outbreaks are occurring in areas where parents are skipping vaccines for their kids. I’ve also asked the state to identify which schools saw outbreaks of whooping cough, another highly contagious illness that’s stirred public health concerns.


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.