School’s Chicken Pox Dispute Spreads to Health Department

Tuesday May 11, 2004

Berkeley Arts Magnet Elementary School is learning that despite a new vaccine that promises to one day vanquish the disease from the face of the earth, the chicken pox can still pack a wallop. 

A sudden outbreak two weeks ago has left six students home sick with the virus, as well as eight students barred from school for three weeks because of their refusal to accept the vaccine. Four of the six students infected are in the same sixth grade class and the other two are in fourth grade.  

And for good measure, the outbreak comes just as students are taking state standardized tests which can label schools as failing if they fail to test enough students. 

“We’re hoping for an extension from the state (for taking the state test),” said School Secretary Brenda Stanford, who said the outbreak has meant a lot of extra work for her. 

It’s also been a trial for city Health Officer Dr. Poki Namkung. She is responsible for coordinating the school’s response, and has taken some heat from at least one parent for her stance that any child not vaccinated be kept out of school for the 21-day period that the virus takes to incubate. Many of the families refusing the vaccine say it violates their religion. 

Nora Akino, whose daughter attends Berkeley Arts Magnet, questioned if the policy was intended to “force parents to vaccinate their children.” She said no doctor had ever urged the vaccine for her child, but said it seemed to her that now chickenpox had been redefined as a dangerous disease. 

“The disease has not changed, and my reasons for not giving my child the vaccine have not changed,” she said, “yet suddenly and without warning, I have been transformed from a parent deciding against an optional vaccine to a parent that is ‘out-of-compliance’ whose child has been barred from school.” 

Health Officer Namkung counters that the virus has killed a “significant number of children” and that she is following standard public health procedures in dealing with the outbreak—which is defined by the state as more than five cases in one elementary school. 

The first case at the school was identified on April 26, but Namkung was not alerted until three days later. She then reviewed school immunization records to determine which students were at risk for contracting the highly infectious virus. On May 5 the city offered vaccines to the 17 students who couldn’t provide proof that they were immune. The vaccine will not protect the students if they had been exposed earlier, but guarantees that if they do come down with the virus, it will not be passed on to their classmates. 

The eight students whose parents opted against the vaccine have been offered independent study contracts for the next three weeks, Stanford said.  

Akino said that she doesn’t trust the effectiveness of the vaccine and wants her daughter to have the chickenpox as a child so she will be immune the rest of her life. Namkung, however, said she “cannot let susceptible children into an environment where I know a serious disease is occurring.” 

This year’s outbreak is the first in Namkung’s nine years with the city and it might well be the last. Since 2001, all incoming elementary school students are required to be vaccinated for the chickenpox or receive an exemption.