A Kentucky teenager banned from school earlier this year because he lacked the chickenpox vaccine contracted the disease last month, according to his father, who says it’s the “best thing to do” to become immune.
Eighteen-year-old Jerome Kunkel returned to class Monday for the first time since March 14, when the Northern Kentucky Health Department barred students without proof of vaccination or immunity against the chickenpox virus from attending Assumption Academy, a Catholic school in the northern part of the state, following an outbreak that had infected 32 students.
Kunkel’s family — who oppose the vaccination on religious grounds — filed a lawsuit against the health department seeking to end the ban, which they said infringed upon their son’s First Amendment rights. Their attorney, Chris Wiest, told The Washington Post Wednesday that his client’s newfound immunity is evidence that the ban was unjustified.
The family first explored legal recourse in February, when the health department announced restrictions on extracurricular events at the school, including the sports Jerome played, citing a high risk of exposure. About two dozen other students have joined in the lawsuit since it was filed, many of whom also became infected with chickenpox in the past two months and have religious exemptions against vaccinations, Wiest said.
He said the school shares a building with Our Lady of the Assumption Church, where unvaccinated students are still allowed to attend for daily Mass even though they’re restricted from classes.
“This is a stupid ban that’s never going to work, and absolutely ridiculous in this context where they go to church upstairs every day together,” Wiest said. “We are not at all surprised. This is exactly what we told the court would happen. Over half my clients contracted chickenpox and had no complications, and now they have a lifetime immunity.”
A judge ruled against Kunkel in April, which led to an appeal.
Jerome’s father, Bill Kunkel, said he thinks his son was exposed to chickenpox in early April, when his infected cousins visited the home. Kunkel previously told The Post that he had immunized his three other children before learning some vaccines were created using the cells of legally aborted fetuses. This appalled him as a Catholic, cementing an anti-vaccine stance shared by many other parents at Assumption Academy — even though the church ruled 15 years ago that vaccines are acceptable to use during a public health crisis.
“They have aborted baby cells in [vaccines]. We’re against abortion in any way,” Bill Kunkel said Wednesday. “That’s what I hope to get out of this: People are aware what’s in these shots.”
Our Lady of the Assumption Church is part of the Society of Saint Pius X, a group that splintered from the Roman Catholic Church and abides by a strict, conservative interpretation of Catholic doctrine. Church and academy officials did not return a phone call requesting comment.
In a Wednesday statement, the Northern Kentucky Health Department said Wiest’s encouragement for his clients to “actively” contract the disease to achieve immunity is “deeply concerning” and bad medical advice.
“While the tactic Wiest suggests may provide an individual with future immunity from chickenpox, this infected person can easily spread the virus to other, unsuspecting people, including those particularly vulnerable to this potentially life-threatening infection,” the statement read. “Encouraging the spread of an acute infectious disease in a community demonstrates a callous disregard for the health and safety of friends, family, neighbors, and unsuspecting members of the general public.”
Wiest said the health department is overreacting.
“It’s a sad state of affairs that the health department wants to create a ‘sky is falling’ mantra over something you have for a week, and is something I had as a kid and most people in my generation got as a kid,” said Wiest, who is 41.
Jerome’s father shared similar sentiments and argued that the government should not have a say in what people put in their bodies. He previously told The Post that when he was young he attended “chickenpox parties,” gatherings coordinated among parents with the intent of exposing their children to the virus.
Health officials — including the Northern Kentucky Health Department in letters to parents — have warned against these gatherings. People with weakened immune systems, such as pregnant women, infants and those who suffer from certain medical conditions, could face complications if they are exposed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that even children who appear healthy could face dire consequences from chickenpox exposure, as there’s no way to predict the severity of their symptoms.
“It is not worth taking the chance of exposing your child to someone with the disease,” the CDC writes. “The best way to protect infants and children against chickenpox is to get them vaccinated.”
About 4 million people in the United States were infected by chickenpox, also known as varicella, each year until the vaccine emerged in 1995, according to the CDC, but infections have drastically fallen since then. A CDC study of 31 states between 2000 and 2010 revealed a 79 percent decrease in chickenpox cases. They estimate that vaccinations stop 3.5 million cases of chickenpox in the United States each year, as well as 100 deaths and 9,000 hospitalizations related to the disease.
A person infected with chickenpox is contagious for up to two days before a rash appears, but Jerome’s family says he was housebound in the days leading up to his symptoms. Everyone he came into contact with was immune or already had the virus.
Since returning to school, Jerome has continuously stayed up late to catch up on the work he’s missed. He’ll need to take tests “just about every day until school is over,” according to his father. The ban also forced Jerome, a senior and the starting center on the school’s basketball squad, to miss a playoff game that his team lost by one point.
Having chickenpox, in contrast, had a minimal impact on his son, he added
“He had a couple days of misery, but after that he was pretty good. He itched a lot,” Kunkel said. “He didn’t die. Isn’t that amazing?”
Katie Mettler and Eli Rosenberg contributed to this report.