In response to the first two varicella (chicken pox) outbreaks in South Carolina since 2020, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) is urging parents and providers to keep children up to date on vaccinations to limit the spread of preventable diseases.
Two varicella outbreaks were reported in early March 2022: The first was reported on March 4 in the Lowcountry Region in a childcare setting. The second one was reported in the Upstate Region on March 10 in an elementary school. Varicella is a very contagious disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus; it appears most commonly as a skin rash of blister-like lesions, usually on the face, scalp, or trunk.
“These two varicella outbreaks as well as a decline in childhood vaccination coverage highlight the need for a renewed focus on maintaining recommended childhood vaccinations,” said Dr. Linda Bell, State Epidemiologist. “We encourage parents to consult their children’s medical provider to ensure their child’s vaccination record is current.”
Although infection is usually mild in healthy children, adults and people with a weakened immune system may have more severe disease. Complications include bacterial infections of skin lesions, pneumonia and complications of the neurologic and other organ systems, among other things.
Prior to the availability of the varicella vaccine, 10,500 to 13,000 persons with varicella required hospitalization each year in the United States. Death from varicella is uncommon; however, some deaths continue to occur even in healthy children and adults who are unvaccinated.
As part of disease control measures to prevent additional varicella spread in school and childcare settings, people who are infectious or unvaccinated must be excluded from the place where the outbreak occurred. For the current two outbreaks, at least 70 people were initially excluded due to having disease or being unvaccinated for varicella.
Unvaccinated people exposed to varicella must be excluded for 21 days after the last case is identified or they may return to group settings once they have received one dose of age-appropriate varicella vaccine. Those who are ineligible for the vaccine due to age or medical condition must complete the exclusion period.
Decreasing rates for routine childhood vaccinations create the potential for the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases and outbreaks of varicella, pertussis, measles and other diseases, all of which can carry serious complications that are unusual now because of the benefit of vaccination programs.
According to data collected by DHEC from the 45-day School Immunization Assessment, the percent of school children with a valid immunization certificate – a written statement from a physician, nurse or health official documenting the date of vaccination – decreased from 98.1% in 2014-15 to 95.7% in 2021-22. Large outbreaks of highly transmissible diseases such as measles have occurred in populations with less than 95% coverage.
You can make an appointment to receive certain vaccines, including flu, pneumonia, varicella and tetanus, at one of DHEC’s county health departments by visiting scdhec.gov or calling the Care Line at 1-855-472-3432.
For more information on vaccine requirements, visit the DHEC website: childcare and school-required vaccines. You can also learn more about varicella on the agency website.