Chicken pox may have a funny name, but it’s not a funny disease. Though some patients have just a mild case, others get hit harder by the fever and itchy, blister-like rash that are typical of the illness — or even develop more serious complications.

So as Maine nears the end of a school year that has seen a record number of chicken pox outbreaks, it’s puzzling that state health officials have kept quiet about which schools have been affected. Community members need this information even if they don’t have school-age kids. This lack of disclosure undermines both public health and the public trust.

In the 2014-15 school year, Maine has recorded four chicken pox outbreaks (three or more cases occurring in one school or day care center). That’s the most since 2003, when having the chicken pox vaccine became a requirement for a child to start school.

This childhood disease is bad news for a lot of people. At risk for severe and even life-threatening complications, such as swelling of the brain and pneumonia, are infants too young to have been immunized and adults who haven’t had chicken pox, especially the elderly and those with immune systems weakened by illnesses such as cancer or AIDS.

There’s no way, however, for Mainers without school-age children to know whether there’s been a local chicken pox outbreak. Schools send notes home with students in affected districts, but the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t identified the communities in those districts.

Keeping the public in the dark about the affected schools protects the privacy of the infected students, according to the state CDC. But to name the school isn’t to name the child, and state officials identified outbreak sites in the 2000s without revealing anyone’s identity.


What’s more, at-risk community members aren’t getting the information they need to make informed decisions, such as asking their doctor for prescription medications that can make a chicken pox infection less lengthy and severe.

State officials also are missing out on an opportunity to call attention to the importance of childhood vaccinations. Fifty-seven of the 84 overall chicken pox cases in 2014-15 were diagnosed in unvaccinated and undervaccinated kids — which is telling in a state where immunization rates have been falling in recent years.

Transparency is urged by three national groups — two associations of public health officials and a journalists’ organization — whose guidelines state that “public health officials should strive to release as much information as possible, within the limits of the law. Withhold information only when there is a clearly justified reason to keep it confidential.”

There is no reason to keep the names of the current outbreak sites confidential, and state officials should rethink their stance and make this information public. Doing so literally could save somebody’s life.

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