While the nightmare of confinement within a restrictive sect in West Texas may be over for more than 400 children in Texas, the outside world may present them with unique health threats.
A dozen of the children have already been identified as being infected with chickenpox, and experts fear that the outbreak could be seen by the sect's members as an ominous result of being removed from their cloistered world and complicate efforts to care for these children.
"I guarantee you that the chickenpox outbreak will be perceived by the group as a sign of wickedness in the outside world," noted Christopher D. Bader, an associate professor of sociology at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who studies fringe religious groups. "Every event that happens in [extreme religious sect members'] lives is seen in a religious worldview."
According to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, a team of medical professionals comprising 25 mental health professionals, four doctors and 10 nurses are providing care for the children, and 14 more doctors and medical assistants will be arriving soon.
The children were rescued this week from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in the Texas town of Eldorado. They are currently being housed in a shelter in San Angelo, Texas.
"As far as here, overall, the health of the women and children appears at least superficially to be good," says Doug McBride, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services, which is in charge of medical care for the children including behavioral health, as well as many of the public health aspects of their sheltering. "My understanding is that there was a physician that was a part of that ranch."
He says that for now, most of the ailments are nothing out of the norm — a few cases of upper respiratory infection and some minor gastrointestinal ailments. He says that the 12 children who are suspected to have chickenpox are being separated from the others to reduce the risk of the disease spreading.
State health experts and infectious disease physicians agree that those with chickenpox were likely infected 10 to 20 days ago — at least a week before they were rescued.
"This belies the notion that you can have kids live in a bubble and protect them from germs and infection," said Dr. William Schaffner, professor and chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. "Obviously the chickenpox virus made its way into the compound."
While the chickenpox outbreak may be holding the attention of those involved, it turns out that the children may be vulnerable to other, more pressing health threats through a general lack of immunizations.
"We're assuming that none of these children have been vaccinated," McBride notes.
Schaffner says this lack of proper immunization must be dealt with effectively, as these children will be vulnerable to certain infections when they join the rest of society. The good news, he says, is that the high immunization rate among other children in the United States means that the chances of these children acquiring these infections in the near future is limited. But in the longer term, a real health threat exists.