Kentucky governor says he exposed his children to chickenpox instead of getting them vaccinated

By Caitlin O'Kane

/ CBS News

Ky. governor exposed his kids to chickenpox

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin said he deliberately exposed his kids to chickenpox, instead of vaccinating them against the common childhood illness. Speaking to local radio station WKCT on Tuesday, Bevin said all nine of his children had chickenpox.

"They got the chickenpox on purpose," Bevin said, "because we found a neighbor that had it and I went and made sure every one of my kids was exposed to it, and they got it." Bevin and his wife, Glenna, have five biological children and four adopted children.

So called chickenpox parties have been popping up across the U.S. for years. Parents sometimes deliberately expose their children to other kids with chickenpox, hoping they catch the virus and therefore become immune. The thinking is that most kids recover quickly, and the illness can be far more serious if they catch it in adulthood. But experts say a better, safer way to become immune to chickenpox is to get vaccinated.

The CDC recommends kids get a first dose of the vaccine at age 12 to 15 months and the second dose when they are 4 to 6 years old. The vaccine was first introduced in 1995, and health officials say chickenpox has declined 85 percent in the United States since 2006, when doctors began routinely recommending a second dose of the vaccine.

It is unclear at what ages Bevin's kids were when they got the virus, but he admitted the illness was no walk in the park. The governor told WKCT his kids were "miserable for a few days" after contracting chickenpox, but said "they all turned out fine."

Public health authorities said they strongly discourage the practice of deliberately exposing children to chickenpox for immunity.

"It's unfortunate and not an example for any of us," infectious disease specialist Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center told the Associated Press. "We should vaccinate all our children. It's a great triumph of public health in the United States. Let's not take a step backward."

Schaffner pointed out there can be potentially serious complications from chickenpox. According to the CDC, complications can include bacterial infections, pneumonia, and encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain. Even though most healthy kids don't experience these problems, others including infants, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems face greater risks of severe illness. Widespread use of the vaccine creates herd immunity, which helps protect those who are most vulnerable.

On Tuesday, Bevin said parents worried about chickenpox should have their children vaccinated. He suggested, however, that government shouldn't mandate the vaccination.

"Why are we forcing kids to get it?" Bevin said. "If you are worried about your child getting chickenpox or whatever else, vaccinate your child. … And in many instances, those vaccinations make great sense. But for some people, and for some parents, for some reason they choose otherwise." His comments to WKCT followed reports of a chickenpox outbreak at a Kentucky Catholic school this week.

Teen kept home for refusing chickenpox vaccine sues the health department

Kentucky law requires children be vaccinated for chickenpox before entering kindergarten. Parents may seek religious exemptions or provide proof that a child already had the disease, the AP reports.

Symptoms of chickenpox include an itchy, blistery rash, tiredness and fever. Two doses of the chickenpox vaccine is more than 90 percent effective at preventing chickenpox, the CDC says.

"When you get vaccinated, you protect yourself and others in your family and community. This protection is especially important for people who cannot get vaccinated, such as those with weakened immune systems, or pregnant women," according to the CDC's website.

First published on March 21, 2019 / 10:04 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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