The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating “multiple cases” of chickenpox among migrants sheltering at the Portland Expo and is urging volunteers to watch for potential symptoms.
A spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services did not provide an exact figure of confirmed cases of chickenpox because the “circumstances are fluid” as the agency awaits additional lab results. But the department said all asylum seekers staying at the Expo “are already considered exposed” to the contagious viral disease, which manifests itself as an itchy rash.
“The number of reported cases we are investigating is in the single digits,” DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said in an email Saturday. “We can provide a total number of confirmed cases once we have that figure. Maine CDC released this information to health providers and volunteers out of an abundance of caution and in the interest of transparency.”
Also known as varicella, chickenpox causes an itchy rash that usually lasts about a week. It can also cause fever, fatigue, loss of appetite and headaches. While typically mild, chickenpox can be more serious in infants, pregnant women and in individuals with weakened immune systems.
Hundreds of asylum seekers from central Africa have arrived in Portland in recent months, drawn by word of a friendly climate and an existing support network.
City officials opened the Expo in June to accommodate the wave of migrants, and now are working to find them alternative housing as a deadline approaches to turn the venue back over to the Maine Red Claws basketball team.
As part of the state’s response, DHHS public health nurses and other medical professionals offered a suite of vaccinations – including for chickenpox – to the recently arrived asylum seekers, Farwell said. But to be fully effective, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children age 13 or younger receive a second dose of the vaccine at least three months after the first dose. For older children and adults, the second dose can be administered after 28 days.
In a letter Friday to volunteers, Maine CDC’s director, Dr. Nirav Shah, said the agency is “following up on reports of multiple cases of varicella” at the Expo. The letter was sent to volunteers who visited the Expo on July 26 or later.
The virus spreads primarily through close contact, and so the Maine CDC recommends good hand hygiene to prevent transmission.
“The best way to prevent varicella is with a vaccine,” Shah wrote. “Everyone who is unvaccinated or never had
varicella should get two doses of vaccine. Call your health care provider to find out if you are up-to-date on varicella vaccine.”
Volunteers are advised to watch for symptoms and to check their vaccination records. People with questions about the varicella vaccine may call the Maine CDC at 800-867-4775 or send an email to [email protected]
“The City is working cooperatively with the Maine CDC following reports of chickenpox cases in individuals staying at the Expo, and is following all protocols associated with limiting further exposure,” City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said in an email.
“We’ve made sure to alert anyone who was known to have visited or volunteered at the Expo since July 26 to watch for symptoms, and to check their vaccination record with their health care provider.”
Grondin said that those diagnosed with chickenpox were still at the Expo, per the Maine CDC’s recommendation.
Chickenpox was relatively common in the United States until two decades ago, infecting on average of 4 million people a year and causing 100 to 150 deaths annually, according to the federal CDC. The introduction of a vaccine in the mid-1990s has dramatically reduced infection rates, however.
In 2018, DHHS reported 252 chickenpox diagnoses in Maine. That was a 27 percent increase from 2017, according to state figures.
While chickenpox is most commonly associated with children due to its easy transmission in schools or day care settings, adults can still become infected. Adults who had chickenpox as children, meanwhile, can develop shingles from the same virus decades later because the virus remains latent in the body. It is not possible for someone to develop shingles from exposure to a person infected with chickenpox, but someone with shingles can trigger a chickenpox infection in individuals who are unvaccinated or who were not previously exposed to the disease.