Chickenpox exposure may keep limited number of students from THON

February 13, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State health officials are contacting a small subset of students who attended an event on campus Saturday, Feb. 7, to discuss their possible exposure to chickenpox and, if found to be at risk for developing the disease, their need to be absent from the upcoming Dance Marathon (THON).

The Nittany Lions’ basketball game against Nebraska, held at the Bryce Jordan Center, was the designated annual THON Hoops game in which about 70 families with children diagnosed with or recovering from pediatric cancer participated. One child in the group that attended had been unknowingly exposed to the chickenpox virus. That child had been immune to chickenpox prior to beginning treatment for cancer. However, that treatment reduced the child’s immunity. Therefore, the child was susceptible to the virus when recently exposed.

Penn State officials say that in all, the potential exposure including at the hospital and THON Hoops, involves 22 pediatric hematology/oncology patients and two pediatric rheumatology patients. The patients and their families were notified of this potential exposure in phone calls, along with precautions that they should take for the next 21 to 28 days. About 150 students have been identified as potentially being exposed, including some student-athletes, who may have interacted with THON families or attended a reception after the event — exposing themselves to the virus. Varicella – the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles, is a highly contagious disease that causes an itchy rash of blisters and a fever.

“Parents and their children in attendance have been notified and we are directly notifying students who may have been exposed to the virus to determine if they have immunity either from having the disease or receiving two doses of the chickenpox vaccine,” said Dr. Robin Oliver, a physician for UHS. “Anyone who had the disease can have a blood test done to verify immunity."

Approximately 150 students who have been identified as potentially exposed to the virus on Feb. 7 are receiving secure emails from University Health Services (UHS) staff. Officials are informing this specific group of students that, if they plan to attend THON in any capacity, they must show proof of immunization well in advance of the Feb. 20 - 22 event. Students who are contacted by UHS should respond promptly, and have their doctor's office fax a copy of their immunization record to UHS. Anyone who had the disease may have a lab test done at UHS to verify immunity to the disease.

Chickenpox spreads in the air through coughing or sneezing. It can also be spread by touching or breathing in the virus particles that come from chickenpox blisters. The best way to protect against chickenpox is by getting the two-dose chickenpox vaccine. However, for any student exposed Feb. 7 to the virus, a shot at this point may not reliably provide immunity for this recent exposure. Officials say it is too late for them to be properly immunized before THON begins next Friday.

Frequently asked questions for students who receive a direct email from UHS are available here.

For more information, contact UHS at 814-863-0774 or send a message through the secure portal at http://studentaffairs.psu.edu/health/myUHS/.

Last Updated February 13, 2015