The state’s decision to keep the public in the dark about which schools were affected by chicken pox outbreaks this year appears to break with past practice. In at least three cases in the 2000s, the state identified the schools or towns where outbreaks had occurred.

Keeping the school names private has drawn criticism from some health advocates, who say it is in the public’s interest to know if they might be exposed to a communicable disease.

When a chicken pox outbreak sickened schoolchildren in Brunswick in 2006, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued a public health alert that revealed the name of the school – Longfellow Elementary – and said it had more than 30 cases over the holiday season. The Maine CDC did the same in 2004 and 2008 when issuing public alerts for whooping cough and hepatitis outbreaks, according to public records.

But in a health alert issued last week announcing that Maine experienced four chicken pox outbreaks this school year with 84 total cases, no schools or districts were named, and the Maine CDC refused to release that information when asked by the news media. The four outbreaks – defined as three or more cases at a school or day care facility – were the most during a school year since 2003, when the chicken pox vaccine became a requirement for entering school, according to the CDC.

Last fall, the Maine CDC also refused to name the school district in Penobscot County where a chicken pox outbreak occurred, or name a restaurant where a hepatitis A case was reported in October.

Dr. Christopher Pezzullo, chief health officer with the Maine CDC, who was promoted in March to replace outgoing health officer Dr. Sheila Pinette, said late Wednesday that he would look into why the CDC may have changed its policies.

A 2010 CDC policy statement, revised in 2012, says that “only the minimum amount of data necessary” should be released to “protect public health.” The policy says that releasing such information could result in identifying individuals who have contracted diseases.

Maine CDC spokesman John Martins said that naming the school district where an outbreak occurred is not in the public interest, but declined to explain why, other than to point to the CDC’s policy, which is designed to protect personal privacy. State law gives the Maine CDC wide discretion to weigh personal privacy against public health concerns.

Martins described the health alerts as a “technical communication with the medical community.” However, the alerts are released to the public, and the media sometimes reports on them.

DISCLOSURE MAY BENEFIT PUBLIC HEALTH

Dr. Lani Graham, a former director of the Maine Bureau of Health, the predecessor of the CDC, said she couldn’t remember how such information was handled when she headed the agency in the early 1990s.

But Graham said that she would lean heavily in favor of disclosing where outbreaks occur because informing people about an infectious disease circulating in the community benefits public health.

“The benefit is the increased awareness among the public and the potential increased ability to limit the spread of diseases,” Graham said.

Schools send notes home with students when outbreaks occur, but adult residents of those communities who don’t have school-aged children wouldn’t know about an outbreak if there is no public announcement.

Adults who catch chicken pox typically experience more severe symptoms than children. The disease can also be dangerous to infants who are too young to be immunized, the elderly and to people whose immune systems are suppressed because of diseases such as cancer and AIDS.

Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a Yarmouth pediatrician who researches vaccines, said Tuesday that the state should consider releasing the names of school districts where outbreaks occur so residents of those communities can take precautions.

“Knowledge is power, and the more the community knows about these outbreaks, the better,” Blaisdell said.

Graham said public disclosure also increases awareness of why getting immunized is important, which could lead to improved vaccination rates. Studies have shown that vaccines are safe, but Maine has one of the highest rates of parents opting out of school vaccinations because of unfounded fears that children could be injured by them.

“There is a real problem we are having in Maine right now. There’s a red flag on the field,” Graham said.

SCHOOL VACCINATION RATES LISTED

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would make it more difficult to opt out of school-required vaccines. Currently, parents can sign a form opting out for philosophic or religious reasons. The bill, if it becomes law, would require a consultation and signature from a medical professional to get permission to forgo vaccines on philosophic grounds.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the Maine CDC’s director from 1996-2011, declined to comment to the Press Herald, although under her tenure the CDC did release the names of the schools and towns that experienced outbreaks, and the health alerts had her name on them.

In addition to sending notes home with children, schools currently must bar unvaccinated children from school for 16 days during an infectious outbreak, according to state law.

Although the Maine CDC has not been disclosing where disease outbreaks occur, last month the agency did, for the first time, release school-by-school vaccination rates for the 2014-15 school year. Previously, only a statewide average was released. State officials have said they released the information because it was in the public’s interest to do so.