At least a quarter of the students enrolled at Brunswick North West Primary in Melbourne, Australia, have contracted chickenpox in the last two weeks. The school is known for having a vaccination rate that is far below levels to create herd immunity. While the precise number of ill students is not known, the school has seen absentee levels of over 25 percent in recent days.
In May, the school released a letter stating that only 73 percent of its students were vaccinated, and that while the school officially "accommodated" anti-vaccination views of many of the parents of its pupils, it also advised students to stay away from babies, elderly people, and anyone who is immunocompromised as they may potentially expose them to a vaccine-preventable disease.
In May, school principal Trevor Bowen sent out a newsletter stating that just 73.2 per cent of pupils were immunised, compared with 92 per cent in the immediate area, 90.4 per cent in the state and 92.2 per cent nationally.
"In many aspects of our school life, we accommodate a range of opinions and beliefs from the parent community," the newsletter said, "and we champion the rights of parents and carers to be involved and leading contributors in their child’s life at school."
"There is a variety of beliefs concerning immunising children. Some people believe it is their right to choose not to vaccinate their child, and that the vaccination program is detrimental to the health of their child. Others believe that immunisation is one of the best ways to protect their children and safeguard the health of others and future generations. "
"Due to immunisation levels at our school, caution should be exercised to limit exposure for the following individuals: recently born babies and infants, the elderly, anyone with an illness or condition which results in the diminution of the body’s immune system, (and) children who are part or unimmunised."
A vaccine for varicella (aka chickenpox) has been available since 1995. While the chickenpox may not seem "bad" compared to other illnesses, it still has the potential for painful blisters and scarring, and can lead to serious complications, including pneumonia and death, if contracted by an adult or someone with a weakened immune system. Further, why would it be a good idea to subject a child to needless suffering when there's a safe and widely-available way to prevent it?
Chickenpox is generally only contracted once, but the latent virus can re-activate as an adult, which is shingles.
It's scary to see diseases that were either in serious decline or completely eradicated in the developed world start to reemerge (with sometimes deadly consequences) due to the popularity of anti-vaccine rhetoric. While my generation is fortunate enough to have not had to worry much about contracting polio, smallpox, or the measles, a further reduction of the vaccination rate could bring these fears back to the forefront. And that's a huge step backwards for science and medicine.