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Chickenpox cases on the rise in youth

Most cases related to shingles exposure, health officials encourage chickenpox vaccination

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News from DPHHS

MONTANA — Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) officials are reporting a recent increase in the number of cases of chickenpox reported in school-aged children. 

And, at least half of these infections were acquired from an adult family member with shingles. Chickenpox, or varicella, can be a serious illness and is easily preventable with vaccination.

“The best way to protect yourself and your child from chickenpox is vaccination,” says Jessica Lopeman, a registered nurse and epidemiologist with DPHHS. 

In 2022, there were 23 reported cases of chickenpox in Montana. Cases ranged in individuals from age 1 to over 65. One infant and one young adult required hospitalization.

Early numbers from 2023 show 18 reported cases of chickenpox with no known hospitalizations. Only six cases were reported during the same period last year, which is a 200% increase in cases year-to-date. Shingles is not a reportable condition; therefore, there is no data on the number of cases last year in Montana.

Shingles is a reactivation of the varicella virus, the virus that causes chickenpox. It occurs in 1 of 3 persons who have had chickenpox in their lifetime. Shingles has a rash that presents as red bumps and blisters, usually in a narrow area on one side of the body. This rash may be itchy or painful and is contagious until it has scabbed over completely and can be transmitted by direct contact.

However, the virus is almost exclusively transmitted to people who are not vaccinated for chickenpox or have never had it in the past. 

Transmission of the virus may be prevented by covering the shingles rash to prevent contact. The incidence of shingles increases with age, and vaccination against shingles is recommended for persons 50 years and older.

Chickenpox is an illness with a rash and a fever. Like shingles, chicken pox is also caused by the varicella virus. The rash usually appears 14 to 16 days following exposure to the varicella virus but can be as early as 10 days or as long as 21 days.

It is highly contagious to those who are not immune, especially those who have not been vaccinated with two doses of chickenpox vaccine. Chickenpox can also be serious, even life-threatening, especially in babies, adolescents, adults, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems. The vaccine is excellent at preventing chickenpox by providing 98.3% effectiveness.

“With the recent rise in cases related to shingles exposures, DPHHS is reminding parents and grandparents that shingles can cause chickenpox in unvaccinated persons who have not previously had the virus,” Lopeman said. “It’s important that children are up to date on vaccines, including the chickenpox vaccine, and if someone does develop shingles, keep the shingles rash covered to prevent exposure and transmission of the varicella virus.” 

But by the time it reached the Senate floor in April, HB 234 was notably different and, in the words of early critics, largely benign. Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, carried an amendment clarifying that the public display of obscene material by commercial outlets is a separate and distinct offense from the general dissemination of obscenity to minors — a prohibition that applies to all Montanans, teachers and librarians included. Salomon’s amendment also granted cities, counties and schools the ability to adopt local obscenity policies of their own.

“When it comes down to it, we didn’t really change the law in the sense of, if people have an issue, what constitutes the process that they should go through,” Salomon, who chaired the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee, told MTFP this week. “Especially if the issue is with a public library or school, there is a policy in place within that school and within that public library that will deal with that, that explains how the process works. If somebody has an issue with a book and they want it to be reviewed, there is a process for it to be reviewed.”

State Superintendent Elsie Artnzen — an early supporter of HB 234 — told MTFP in an interview Wednesday that Salomon’s amendments made the bill “more structurally sound,” and could fuel additional conversations about library and classroom content in the future. 

While some initial critics remain troubled by the criticism leveled against educators and specific nationally targeted books during the debate, Melton and other public education advocates agree the final iteration of HB 234 that became law changes very little in a practical sense. Melton noted that most school districts already have their own local policies to deal with potentially objectionable materials.

“The changes in (the) Senate education (committee) turned this bill into what it should have been to begin with,” Melton said, “which is a clean-up bill clarifying what laws apply to what circumstances.”

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