According to the Asheville Citizen Times, local health officials have confirmed 36 cases of chickenpox as of Friday, the highest number since the two-dose vaccine for the virus was made available in the US in 1995.
"People don't think it's a serious disease, and for the majority of people it's not. But it's not that way for everybody," Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, of the Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services, told the outlet.
"To me, that's not a mild disease, and if you're the parent of one of those children, you probably don't think so either."
Per the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chickenpox is a highly contagious disease that causes an itchy, blister-like rash to spread over one's body, first starting on the stomach and moving to the back and face. The agency estimates that anywhere between 250 and 500 blisters can cover an individual's body.
Parents and guardians are urged to have children vaccinated not only to protect themselves, but to protect others with weakened immune systems. According to the CDC, a toddler with leukemia died from chickenpox in 2012 after coming in contact with the virus.
"We want to be clear: vaccination is the best protection from chickenpox," Mullendore said in statement. "Two doses of varicella vaccine can offer significant protection against childhood chickenpox and shingles as an adult."
"When we see high numbers of unimmunized children and adults, we know that an illness like chickenpox can spread easily throughout the community — into our playgrounds, grocery stores and sports teams."
However, these recommendations have long been disregarded by the dozens of parents living in the area. Data collected by the North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services shows that Asheville Waldorf had one of the highest rates of vaccine exemptions on religious grounds during the 2017-2018 school year.
The Citizen-Times reported that of the 28 kindergarten students enrolled that year, a whopping 19 pupils had an exemption to at least one vaccine required by the state. The same academic year also saw Buncombe County lead the state in religious exemptions, with 5.7 percent of kindergarteners not being vaccinated.
Many Asheville parents have claimed their stance in opting out of certain vaccinations is the result of their belief that vaccines tend to lead to a host of other health-related issues down the road.
"What's the big deal with chickenpox? There is no big deal," Amy Gordon, a resident of Asheville, told the Citizen-Times. "If I was a parent with a kid who wasn't vaccinated, I'd want to send my kid to the Waldorf School to get chickenpox."
Gordon, who had her own kids vaccinated in the 1980s against polio and other diseases, added that she wouldn't have allowed her kids to get the chickenpox vaccine.
Addressing the high religious vaccination exemption rate, the Asheville Waldorf School released a statement, noting that while student health is a priority, officials also "recognize that a parent's decision to immunize their children happens before they enter school."
"The school follows immunization requirements put in place by the North Carolina State Board of Education," a statement obtained by Blue Ridge Public Radio reads. "At Asheville Waldorf School, we support our families, we love our students, we love our city and we are grateful that our community is strong during challenging times."
According to the CDC, the chickenpox vaccine prevents more than 3.5 million cases of the virus, 9,000 hospitalizations and an estimated 100 deaths each year.