A student at a private high school fighting a court battle against the Northern Kentucky Health Department over orders attempting to contain an outbreak of chicken pox has caught the virus. And now, his attorney is catching heat for comments he made downplaying the dangers associated with the illness.
Jerome Kunkel, 18, filed suit against the health department in Boone County Circuit Court after it ordered students at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School and Assumption Academy, an associated high school, to stay home from classes after an outbreak of chicken pox.
Almost all students at both schools, which are part of a conservative branch of the Roman Catholic church, have claimed religious exemptions to regulations requiring vaccinations against chicken pox for students. The students and their families abstain from the chicken pox vaccination because it contains copies of cells from the lungs of a fetus aborted in the 1960s.
The outbreak at the schools started with a few cases in January and the health department issued its orders in March. By that time, 32 students — more than 10 percent of the high school's student body — had caught the virus.
Kunkel claimed in court filings that the health department's orders violated his religious rights by ordering students to stay home for at least 21 days after the final case of the virus ended. Roughly 24 other students told to stay home joined his suit.
Chris Wiest, Kunkel's attorney, says about half of those clients associated with the case have contracted chickenpox since the March order by the health department.
Wiest has said he told students' parents to encourage their children to try and contract the virus. Once a person catches and overcomes chickenpox, their body generally develops an immunity to the illness.
The Northern Kentucky Health Department yesterday issued a statement strongly denouncing Wiest's advice, calling it "alarming and disappointing."
"This is clearly not appropriate medical advice, according to physicians and infectious disease experts," the health department's statement read. "Chickenpox, also known as varicella, is an acute infectious disease. When introduced in an unvaccinated population, the virus can rapidly spread, causing serious, even deadly consequences, to people who are particularly at risk, such as infants, adolescents, pregnant women, and adults and children with weakened immune systems, including those receiving cancer treatment."
The advice Wiest gave goes against practices established by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, health department continued.
"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," the department's statement reads.
A judge ruled against Kunkel's lawsuit in April, but he has appealed the decision. The case is now before the Kentucky Court of Appeals.