A teenager from Northern Kentucky who sued his local health department after being banned from school for refusing to be vaccinated against chickenpox has now contracted the serious and sometimes deadly virus.
Jerome Kunkel, an 18-year-old student and starting centre on his high school basketball team, made headlines in March after suing the Northern Kentucky Health Department for banning unvaccinated students from attending Our Lady of the Assumption Academy during an outbreak of chickenpox.
When the ban came into force, 32 cases of chickenpox had spread within the Catholic school, escalating the need to control the outbreak. Authorities elected to disallow all students without proof of vaccination or proof of immunity against chickenpox from attending school.
"Although we have been working with the school to contain the illnesses since February, the Health Department has recently seen a concerning increase in the number of infected students at the school," district director of health Lynne Saddler said at the time.
"[This] has prompted us to take further control measures at the school and to make the public aware that chickenpox may be in the community."
The decision did not sit well with Jerome Kunkel and his deeply religious family, who oppose on moral grounds that the chickenpox vaccine, like some other vaccines, was developed with the aid of cells from legally but electively aborted foetal tissue.
"This is tyranny against our religion, our faith, our country," Bill Kunkel, Jerome's father, told The Washington Post.
"He's being penalised because he's a healthy child. He may not ever get chickenpox."
As it happens, he did.
The family's lawyer, Christopher Wiest, confirmed to the media this week that his client Jerome Kunkel has indeed contracted the virus, but despite the severity of the disease – which in extreme cases can cause pneumonia, sepsis, and even death – the Kunkel family seems to have no regrets about their anti-vax stance.
"These are deeply held religious beliefs, they're sincerely held beliefs," Wiest told NBC News.
"From their perspective, they always recognised they were running the risk of getting it, and they were OK with it."
But in Wiest's chickenpox-susceptible community, the Kunkels are not the attorney's only clients. And his legal advice to the families seeking his counsel over the virus outbreak could be putting people in danger.
"About half my clients have come down with it since we filed the case," Wiest told the Cincinnati Enquirer.
"I flat-out told the mums and dads the quickest path to resolving this is having them contract chickenpox."
While contracting the virus once is one way of securing immunity from subsequent chickenpox infections (for the vast majority of people at least), these days the medical community advises that getting vaccinated against chickenpox is far safer than the outdated practice of voluntarily exposing young people to the disease.
Despite that, even Kentucky governor Matt Bevin has come under fire for admitting he voluntarily exposed all nine of his children "on purpose".
"We found a neighbour that had it, and I went and made sure every one of them got it," Bevin said in an interview in March.
"They were miserable for a few days and they all turned out fine."
The continued prevalence of these dangerous beliefs about the best way of managing chickenpox could be to do with how recent the chickenpox vaccine is, since it was only introduced in the 1990s – meaning many parents today grew up in the era of 'chickenpox parties' before vaccination was an option.
But for a lawyer – not a doctor – in 2019 to still be advocating this dangerous, outdated conduct to his clients is "alarming and disappointing", the Northern Kentucky Health Department says.
"While the tactic Wiest suggests may provide an individual with future immunity from chickenpox, this infected person can easily spread the virus to other, unsuspecting people, including those particularly vulnerable to this potentially life-threatening infection," the department explains in a statement.
"Encouraging the spread of an acute infectious disease in a community demonstrates a callous disregard for the health and safety of friends, family, neighbours, and unsuspecting members of the general public."
None of this may concern Jerome Kunkel, who is "a little itchy" but otherwise fine, Wiest says.
The good news for him is his scabs will heal soon, and shortly after that, he will be free to return to his school, his studies, and his basketball.