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Chicken Pox and Event Cancellations: What Planners Should Know

22 Feb, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

While many parents chewed their nails over the possibility of the Zika virus being brought home by travel teams who had visited the so-called ‘hot spots’ for infection, it was a far more well-known malady that managed to knock sports events for a loop. Chicken pox (yes, the good old varicella-zoster virus, the miserably itchy nemesis of kids everywhere) has made headlines in the U.S. again. And that means planners of sports events need to be on the alert.

In Roanoke, Virginia, multiple cases of the virus in one high school led to the cancellation of basketball games. According to an article in the Roanoke Times, a combined eight junior varsity and varsity games were canceled, with no plans of rescheduling.

It was hardly the first such incident, since the virus spreads easily among children, particularly those in schools, on sports teams and in other situations where groups spend time together. In early fall, a rural area of Michigan reported a spike in cases among schoolchildren who rode the same bus to classes. In late November of 2015, another outbreak, this in some schools in the Traverse City area, affected 35 children.

In all cases, those who were affected by the virus had not received the chicken pox vaccine. While many children are vaccinated against the virus as a matter of course, the anti-vaxxer sentiment remains strong among some parents, particularly with Donald Trump in office, who continues to stoke fears over innoculations. It is worth noting that the same virus that causes chicken pox also causes shingles in adults; in fact, it’s possible for adults with shingles to give the chicken pox virus to unvaccinated children. (Adults age 60 and over can choose to receive a shingles vaccine.)

But in addition to being an itchy nuisance, there are financial ramifications when it comes to chicken pox (as well as other contagious diseases.) The Virginia basketball series was not the first, nor will it be the last, sports event to be cancelled because of the risk of infection. However, event planners should check their insurance coverage, according to Seth J. Fleischer of Aon Affinity/Affinity Nonprofits in Washington, D.C., since cancellation coverage can vary, according to policies.

“Coverage for communicable disease is a general exclusion under most Event Cancellation policies, but it can be added back for an additional premium charge,” notes Fleischer.

Simply put, that means the coverage may be excluded (or not covered) in a typical policy – but the event owner has the option of adding it back in for an added cost.

That means now is a good time to check with your insurer when it comes to matters of coverage. You may have to mention certain diseases, such as chicken pox, to learn about exclusions.

So where does this leave sports planners? In a tight spot, really. Many event owners specify that children who participate in sports programs must meet specific requirements, including receiving recommended vaccinations as requested by various states. According to the CDC, for example, for the 2011 to 2012 school year, 36 states and DC require children to receive two doses of chicken pox vaccine or have other evidence of immunity against chicken pox before starting school. However, the CDC also notes that many states have vaccination exemption laws allowing parents to opt-out of having their children vaccinated for various reasons; a graph of those states and reasons is shown here.

Another problem is that many parents do not view chicken pox as a true health threat; in fact, some still consider catching it a rite of passage – a holdover from their own school days when families would have multiple children infected with the virus at the same time.

However, chicken pox is not entirely harmless. According to WebMD, “the risk of serious, life-threatening complications is greatest among infants, adults, and people with weakened immune systems. But anyone can develop serious complications and there is no way to predict who will.” The fact that the virus is highly contagious (it can be spread by direct contact with an infected person or even through the air when that person coughs or sneezes) worsens the problem.

The fact that spring break is on the horizon, bringing together not just very young athletes but those in high school and college (many of whom may be unvaccinated) means even more potential for the virus to spread.

Sports event owners can help lessen the threat level to participants by:

  • Requiring that all youth athletes have appropriate vaccines (state exemptions may apply, and it is advisable to check with your attorney regarding any language to be used on registration forms; remember that in general, many forms also state that at the time of signature, the parent or guardian is not aware the person in question has any communicable diseases)

  • Reminding parents that children can contract chicken pox not just from other kids, but from adults who have the shingles virus

  • Making sure parents are aware of the symptoms of chicken pox and understanding how easily transmissible it is

  • Checking with doctors, trainers or other health personnel if an athlete appears to have symptoms

  • If an athlete is diagnosed with chicken pox while at an event, not allowing that person to have direct contact with others on the team so as to lower the risk of transmission, and making sure that athlete goes home as soon as possible

  • Checking the CDC’s information on chicken pox outbreaks in the United States to find out where the virus is being reported

Over the years, the sports industry has seen multiple problems in cases where childhood illnesses have struck athletes and threatened events. In 2014, mumps threatened to put the NHL on ice after multiple cases were reported. Not long after that, a measles outbreak peaked in Arizona just prior to the Super Bowl, making health officials nervous. In both cases, vaccines existed for the illnesses.

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