Teen Who Sued Health Department After Being Banned Over Refusing Chickenpox Vaccine Contracted Virus: Report

Kentucky teen Jerome Kunkel is suing Kentucky's Health Department.
CBS News

A Kentucky teen who was banned from attending school after he refused to be vaccinated because of his religious beliefs has contracted chickenpox, according to reports. 

The family of Jerome Kunkel, 18, filed a lawsuit against the Northern Kentucky Health Department after in March it barred students at Assumption Academy from attending the Catholic school unless they provided proof of vaccination or immunity against the virus.

The ban followed an outbreak of the virus at the school that saw 32 students infected, but Kunkel’s family, who oppose vaccinations on religious grounds, said it infringed upon their son’s First Amendment rights. 

A judge ruled against Kunkel in April, which led to an appeal. 

Around that time, it is believed by Kunkel’s family that he was exposed to chickenpox when his infected cousins visited his home. He first started showing chickenpox symptoms last week, the family’s attorney Christopher Wiest told NBC News

"The ban was stupid," Wiest said. "He could have contracted this in March and been back to school by now."

Kunkel’s father told The Washington Post he immunized his three other children but his stance on the vaccination changed after he said he learned how it was created.

“They have aborted baby cells in [vaccines]. We’re against abortion in any way,” Bill Kunkel said.

Two cell lines used for several vaccines, including the varicella, or chickenpox, vaccine, were created from cells obtained through two legal, elective abortions performed in England and Sweden in the 1960s. 

“Viruses, unlike bacteria, have to grow in cells; the question is what cell type one picks," Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said in a video created by the Hospital in 2015. 

“Now the answer question is it true then that some of these vaccines … could contain small quantities of residual DNA from those cells? And the answer to that question is yes,” he continued. “So some Catholics have wondered about this … so that has worked its way up all the way to the major policy making body of the Catholic Church, which is the Pontifical Academy for Life.”  

The church ruled 15 years ago that vaccines produced from those cell lines are acceptable to use “if there is a proportionately serious reason for doing so,” according to the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

“Because those vaccines protect children, because vaccines keep children from suffering or permanently harmed or dying, and because the Catholic Church, as is true of I think all major religions, values health, those vaccines are still recommended for Catholics who are concerned about them,” Offit said.  

The Kunkels are members of Our Lady of Assumption Church, which is a part of the Society of Saint Pius X, a group that splintered from the Roman Catholic Church and follows strict, conservative interpretations of Catholic dogma.  

Bill said the impact of chickenpox on his son has been minimal compared to the amount of catch-up he will have to do back at school. 

“He had a couple days of misery, but after that he was pretty good. He itched a lot,” Bill told the Post. “He didn’t die. Isn’t that amazing?”

The Northern Kentucky Health Department said in part in a statement Wednesday: “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.”

A person infected with chickenpox is contagious for up to two days before a rash becomes visible. About 4 million people in the U.S. each year were infected by the virus before the vaccine became available in 1995, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. 

Following the emergence of the vaccine, chickenpox cases decreased 79 percent across 31 states between 2000 and 2010, the agency said. It estimates about 3.5 million cases of chickenpox, as well as 100 deaths and 9,000 hospitalizations related to the virus, are prevented by the vaccine. 

The CDC urges parents considering keeping their children from being vaccinated to reconsider, saying even children who appear healthy could face serious consequences from exposed to the chickenpox. 

“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.” 

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