Student contracts chickenpox after suing to return to school without vaccine

An unvaccinated Kentucky high school student who was barred from school activities during a chickenpox outbreak contracted chickenpox after suing to return to the school, his lawyer said.

Jerome Kunkel, 18, came down with chickenpox last week, but has since recovered and returned to school on Wednesday after about two months, his attorney Christopher Wiest said, adding that his client is "fine."

Kunkel attends Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Assumption Academy in Walton. After an outbreak of chickenpox, students who weren't vaccinated were ordered to stay away from the school and activities until 21 days after the onset of the rash.

"Although we have been working with the school to contain the illnesses since February, the health department has recently seen a concerning increase in the number of infected students at the school which has prompted us to take further control measures at the school and to make the public aware that chickenpox may be in the community," Dr. Lynne Saddler, District Director of Health at the Northern Kentucky Health Department, said in March.

Kunkel, who plays basketball for the school, then sued the Northern Kentucky Health Department, claiming the vaccine is against his religious beliefs. A judge last month denied the request to return to activities. Kunkel appealed the decision.

Wiest said the money damages portion of the case remains pending in the Circuit Court for a jury trial next year. The attorney said he has 25 clients and about half of them have contracted chickenpox since filing the case. He said the other half who have not yet contracted chickenpox are still potentially subject to the ban.

Wiest also said he told parents that a child's getting chickenpox would be the quickest way to resolve the case, since a bout of chickenpox insures immunity.

But the health department said in a news release Wednesday that Wiest's statement was "alarming and disappointing."

"This is clearly not appropriate medical advice, according to physicians and infectious disease experts," the department said. "Chickenpox, also known as varicella, is an acute infectious disease. When introduced in an unvaccinated population, the virus can rapidly spread."

The department said people who contract chickenpox can expose others to the virus before the disease becomes apparent.

"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 department said.

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin said in March during an interview that he deliberately exposed his children to chickenpox so they would catch the disease and become immune. The Republican governor said parents worried about chickenpox should have their children vaccinated but suggested that government shouldn't mandate the vaccination.

Kentucky requires that children entering kindergarten be vaccinated for chickenpox, but parents may seek religious exemptions or provide proof that a child already had the disease.

The Kentucky health department reiterated that the chickenpox vaccine is the best way to prevent and spread the varicella virus, saying "It is very safe and prevents almost all cases of severe illness."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.