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YME reports grade school students hit with outbreak of chickenpox

WILLMAR -- A chickenpox outbreak in the Yellow Medicine East School District prompted school officials to send out letters this week, notifying families of the outbreak and outlining steps they can take to reduce its spread.

About 25 cases have been reported since May 13, said Linda Norland, deputy administrator of Countryside Public Health in Granite Falls. Most were among elementary-age children, but the outbreak may be spreading, she said Wednesday.

"I think it's been out there long enough where you're getting siblings now," she said.

Officials said the number of cases is slightly higher than normal but said they don't believe there's reason for heightened concern over the outbreak.

Cases of varicella, or chickenpox, occur almost every year in Minnesota, usually among school-age children, Norland said.

"It's not unusual to see some clusters of varicella in elementary schools," she said.

Chickenpox, which is caused by a virus and spread by either direct contact or through the air, is characterized by an itchy rash, fatigue and fever. The disease is mild among most people, but occasionally can lead to complications such as pneumonia, dehydration, skin and soft tissue infection, or encephalitis. Those most at risk of more serious disease include infants, older teens and adults, persons with weakened immune systems and pregnant women.

Minnesota requires vaccination against chickenpox for children before entering kindergarten or attending a licensed day care facility. Starting in September of this year, two doses of chickenpox vaccine will be required for Minnesota kindergarteners and seventh-graders.

Norland said some of the Yellow Medicine East children who have come down with chickenpox had been immunized; others were not.

The disease is usually milder among those who have received the chickenpox vaccine, she said.

Officials with Countryside Public Health, Yellow Medicine East and the Minnesota Department of Health are continuing to investigate the outbreak and take steps to limit its spread.

More cases could occur, even after school ends on May 28, Norland said.

"It takes three weeks to develop the illness," she said. "Chickenpox spreads, so it certainly is a potential."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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