Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) turned heads this week after saying on a radio show that he had intentionally tried to get his children infected with chickenpox and that he did not support the state’s mandatory chickenpox vaccine.
“We found a neighbor that had it,” the first-term governor said. “And I went and made sure every one of my kids was exposed to it and they got it. And they had it as children, they were miserable for a few days, and they all turned out fine.”
Chickenpox is less deadly in children than adults, but public health experts say it is still important to get vaccinated to prevent a small number of deaths every year and protect others with weaker immune systems. As of 2012, some 36 states and the District required children to receive the chickenpox vaccine or have other evidence of immunity against chickenpox before starting school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seventeen, including Kentucky, allow parents to exempt their children for medical, religious or philosophical reasons.
But Bevin criticized requirements that children get vaccinated for chickenpox.
“This is America and the federal government should not be forcing this upon people,” Bevin said.
Public health experts said that the governor seemed misinformed.
“It’s a public health hazard,” said Steven Teutsch, an adjunct professor of health policy and management at the University of California at Los Angeles and a former officer at the CDC. “One of the things that we worry about is that you know people who think these things — you’re on a slippery slope that leaves the kids and the population vulnerable.”
The CDC advises against the practice of intentionally exposing children to others who are infected with the virus, which is sometimes referred to as “chickenpox parties.”
“Chickenpox can be serious and can lead to severe complications and death, even in healthy children. There is no way to tell in advance how severe your child’s symptoms will be,” the CDC says on its website. “So it is not worth taking the chance of exposing your child to someone with the disease. The best way to protect infants and children against chickenpox is to get them vaccinated.”
Before the chickenpox vaccine debuted in 1995, about 4 million Americans were infected with chickenpox, also known as varicella, every year, according to the CDC. Of that group, 10,500 to 13,000 people were hospitalized and 100 to 150 people died, the CDC said. But those statistics decreased sharply in the years after the introduction of the vaccine: The prevalence of chickenpox has decreased by an estimated 79 percent, according to a CDC study of 31 states between 2000 and 2010. In the two four-year periods the CDC studied before and after the vaccine was introduced, deaths went down 87 percent. In children and adults younger than 20, deaths declined by 99 percent over the same period, between 2008 and 2011 compared to 1990 to 1994.
Teutsch said Bevin’s comments seemed to echo the small but growing campaigns against vaccines. Many people in those groups point to debunked claims that vaccines are linked to autism.
“It’s part of the same constellation of things but hasn’t been a highly visible part of it,” he said.
Asked about Bevin’s assertion that people who get vaccinated are less protected against the disease than those who get it on their own and are then organically immune, Teutsch said he did not know where the governor was getting his facts.
Bevin did not respond to a request for comment sent to two spokeswomen.
Bevin’s comments come on the heels of a public health debate unfolding about chickenpox in the state. Some 32 children have shown symptoms of the illness after an outbreak at Assumption Academy, a Catholic school in the northern part of the state, and the Northern Kentucky Health Department responded with a quarantine that sought to ban unvaccinated students from the school and athletic events until the virus was brought under control. One family, who say they are opposed to vaccinations because of the way some were created, with the cells from legally aborted fetuses decades ago, is suing the state, saying the health department violated their son’s First Amendment rights.
Bevin previously drew national headlines when he sought to discredit ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism outfit, after the announcement that it would partner with a local newspaper to fund a year-long investigative reporting project in the state.
Katie Mettler contributed to this report.