As many as 80 of the 320 children who attend Brunswick North West Primary School have been missing out over the last two weeks as the school buckles under the weight of a chickenpox outbreak.
The illness started with a few children in the 6th grade, before spreading quickly throughout the school all the way down to the 2nd grade. The Department of Health was notified of the first cases on November 26th, and urged calm over the numbers of children affected.
“There are no firm figures on the number of students who have contracted the illness since then, but we’ve been advised that over the period there has been an absentee rate of about 25 per cent on any given day,” a spokesman for the department told the Sydney Morning Herald.
It seems no coincidence that the school, which has in the past called for tolerance towards parents who choose not to vaccinate their children, was struck by the illness. Although children who have been vaccinated can still contract chickenpox, the school has a lower immunisation rate that both state and national averages. However, it championed an accepting approach among parents with different views on vaccination.
Brunswick North West Primary School noted in a schools newsletter that it was against the law for Victorian schools to ban a child from enrolling because they are not vaccinated. They also drew parental attention to the stark difference in vaccination rates in the school, postcode and state. The local area has a vaccination rate of 92%, close to the state rate of 90.4%. However, at Brunswick North West Primary School the rate is just 73.2%.
80 Kids Contract Chickenpox At One School
Parents Speaking Up
Not surprisingly, the school is feeling the tension from parents on both sides of the vaccination line, with many eager to share their views. Sara McKenzie is one such parent. She vaccinated her young son Wesley, who is in the 1st grade, but he still contracted chickenpox. Sara said that she was shocked by the low vaccination rates at the school.
“I think everyone should get vaccinated because it’s a matter of public health and community safety,” Sara said. “You don’t just vaccinate for your kids, you have to consider the whole community.”
However, she was aware that the issue was not confined to Brunswick North West Primary School, but wasn’t sure what the next move was on anyone’s part.
“No matter how angry you get, what are they going to do? You can’t make people vaccinate their children,” she said.
Rachel Berman is another parent in the middle of the chickenpox outbreak. She has two children attending Brunswick North West Primary, including one in the second grade who contracted chickenpox. When questioned by the Sydney Morning Herald, she admitted that she wasn’t aware vaccination rates at the school were so much lower than the rest of the state.
“My kids are pretty healthy and it is definitely a parents’ choice, but if you can see a pattern … then that would raise concerns for me,” she said.
The School’s Response
Brunswick North West Primary School has taken several steps over recent years to combat rising tensions among parents on the issue of vaccinations. In a past newsletter the school tackled the problem head on, noting that there were many areas in a school where opinions varied and needed to be accommodated.
“Staff respect the rights of every family to make choices about immunisation and we will definitely not exclude children who are not fully immunised from our service,” the newsletter said.
“We expect all community members to act respectfully and with tolerance when interacting with other parents and carers who may have a differing opinion to their own. This includes an opposing understanding about child immunisation.”
Health Professionals Have Their Say
Health Minister Jill Hennessy is eager to address the trend of plateauing vaccination rates in Victoria over the last few years. She said that she is concerned about where parents are getting their information about vaccinates, especially if it’s coming from “myth makers” or those not properly qualified to make such statements.
“Get your advice from a doctor, not from some quack who’s opposed to vaccination based on dodgy science.”
Doctors agree, saying that although children can get chickenpox after they’re immunised, the severity of the condition it significantly reduced from around 800 spots to just 25 spots.
Monash Children’s Hospital head of infection and immunity Jim Buttery urged the public to remember the chickenpox is highly contagious, with each infected person typically passing the condition to between seven and nine others. Herd immunity requires at least a 90% immunisation rate, which explains why the outbreak at Brunswick North West Primary School got out of control.
No Jab, No Play In The Future
At the moment, there is no law that would see children banned from attending school because they are not vaccinated. A non-immunised child is free to attend any school, but parents must inform the school of their status. However, on January 1 of 2016 new state government laws will come into effect that will stop non-vaccinated children attending child care or kindergarten. These laws will not apply to primary or high schools, but with mass outbreaks like this being buoyed by falling vaccination rates, there could be a push to expand the program in the future.