Kentucky teen who sued over school ban for refusing chickenpox vaccination now has chickenpox

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By David K. Li

A northern Kentucky teenager banned from school for refusing the chickenpox vaccination due to his religious beliefs has come down with the childhood malady, his attorney said Wednesday.

Jerome Kunkel, a student at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Assumption Academy, first started showing chickenpox symptoms last week and hopes to have recovered by next week, a lawyer for the 18-year-old told NBC News.

Kunkel and his family have no regrets about their decision to not be vaccinated.

“These are deeply held religious beliefs, they’re sincerely held beliefs,” family attorney Christopher Wiest said. “From their perspective, they always recognized they were running the risk of getting it, and they were OK with it.”

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Some ultraconservative Catholics oppose chickenpox vaccinations because it was developed in the 1960s from cell lines of two aborted fetuses.

A chickenpox outbreak at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Assumption Academy in March prompted state health officials to order unvaccinated students to stay away from school. Kunkel unsuccessfully challenged the state ban in court.

Now that Kunkel has had the chickenpox, and is thus immune to it, he hopes to be back in class soon for the first time since March 15.

Kunkel said he’s looking forward to his recovery and his life’s getting back to normal.

“Thing are somewhat normal except … for homework I got to catch up with,” he told WLWT, an NBC affiliate in Cincinnati.

Had state health officials not intervened, the family’s lawyer, Wiest said, his client would have had the chickenpox earlier this year.

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

Once the banned student can show that all of his chickenpox lesions have scabbed over, he’ll be allowed to return to school, according to Doug Hogan, spokesman for Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

State health officials also lashed out at Wiest, accusing him of “downplaying the dangers of the chickenpox.”

“Encouraging the spread of an acute infection disease in a community demonstrates a callous disregard for the health and safety of friends, family, neighbors and unsuspecting members of the general public,” according to a statement by Laura Brinson, a spokeswoman for the Northern Kentucky Health Department.

Earlier this year, opponents of mandatory vaccinations seemed to pick up support from Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who admitted he’s exposed all nine of his children to chickenpox.

“We found a neighbor that had it, and I went and made sure every one of them got it. They were miserable for a few days and they all turned out fine,” Bevin told WKCT, a radio station in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in March.

Despite his unorthodox actions, Bevin urged parents to get their kids vaccinated.