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Cases of chickenpox on the rise among school-aged children

by TAYLOR INMAN, Daily Inter Lake
| May 31, 2023 1:00 AM

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services officials are seeing an increase in the number of cases of chickenpox reported in school-aged children across the state.

There has been a 200% increase in the number of cases year-to-date in the state when compared to May 2022.

A release from state health officials said at least half of the infections were acquired from an adult family member with shingles. Chickenpox, or varicella, can be a serious illness and is preventable with vaccination.

“The best way to protect yourself and your child from chickenpox is vaccination,” said Jessica Lopeman, a registered nurse and epidemiologist with the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Montana saw 23 reported cases of chickenpox in 2022. Early numbers from 2023 show 18 reported cases of chickenpox with no known hospitalizations. Just six cases were reported during the same period last year.

While there hasn’t been an uptick in Flathead County, according to Malia Freeman with the Flathead City-County Health Department, staff remain on the lookout.

Shingles is not a reportable condition, so there is no data on the number of cases last year in Montana.

Shingles is a reactivation of the varicella virus, which causes chickenpox. It occurs in one of three people who have had chickenpox in their lifetime. Shingles has a rash that presents as red bumps and blisters, usually in a narrow area on one side of the body. This rash may be itchy or painful and is contagious until it has scabbed over completely. It can be transmitted by direct contact.

Shingles is almost exclusively transmitted to people who are not vaccinated for chickenpox or have never had it in the past. Transmission of the virus may be prevented by covering the shingles rash to prevent contact. The incidence of shingles increases with age, and vaccination against shingles is recommended for persons 50 years and older.

State health officials are reminding parents and grandparents that shingles can cause chickenpox in unvaccinated people who have not previously had the virus.

“It’s important that children are up-to-date on vaccines, including the chickenpox vaccine, and if someone does develop shingles, keep the shingles rash covered to prevent exposure and transmission of the varicella virus.” Lopeman said.