New Craigslist Ad: “Got Chicken Pox?”

It is true, and it has been done. Online posts in search of individuals infected with the chickenpox indicate the growing popularity of “chickenpox parties” [1].

Superficially, these parties are nothing extraordinary. They provide a comfortable, welcoming social atmosphere as one family’s healthy children become friends with another family’s infected children through crafts, sports, and video games. There is one difference, however, from typical “hanging out.” All rules of hygiene are disregarded. Children are encouraged to share as many germs as they can. This may involve switching around lollipops, spoons, drinking cups, and clothing exposed to open rashes [6,7]. At the end of the day, the healthy children return home feeling happy, while the parents hope to see pink spots in the next couple of weeks. If one party fails, then the search for another begins.

It is irrational to ignore accessible methods of chickenpox prevention to intentionally expose children to the disease. Only fourteen years ago, the United States anticipated the introduction of the chickenpox vaccine that would reduce the 4 million cases, 11,000 hospitalizations, and 100 deaths faced each year [2]. With the vaccine approved and available, 8 deaths were reported between 2003 and 2004 [3]. Despite the favorable statistics, not all people share a reverent attitude towards the chickenpox vaccine. While some parents continue to vaccinate their children, others go out of their way to avoid doing the same.

For instance, one mother received an invitation to a pox party through the messaging board of Mothering.com. Her initial Craigslist advertisement had failed to attract any interest. She drove three hours to a stranger’s home to expose her 2-year-old daughter “Sally” to the other family’s infected children [4]. But for those who cannot find a chickenpox party or cannot fit a road trip into the day’s schedule, do not fret. Overnight shipping works wonders these days. Clothing worn by children with the pox can be mailed directly to your house [5].

In order to understand why the chickenpox vaccine has sprouted a controversy, the background of chickenpox must be briefly explained. The illness is caused by the varicella-zoster virus and spread by direct contact with an active rash or from coughing and sneezing [8]. The symptoms are widely known and experienced firsthand by many: red and itchy rash, blisters, fever, and headache. Familiar consequences include bacterial infection of the skin and even pneumonia, both of which amplify the potential of chickenpox to become a serious issue [9].

The common sentiment is that chickenpox is not a big deal in relation to more damaging complications such as polio or tetanus. While this view is appropriate in most cases, varicella affecting adults can be fatal, particularly to those with weak immune systems or pregnant women [10]. Regardless of age, the standard method of prevention is the varicella vaccine, which either provides complete protection or lessens the severity of symptoms [11]. Historically, particularly during the 1500s, diseases similar to varicella were prevented by controlled inoculation [12], which is essentially jargon for pox parties.

Developers of vaccines have never guaranteed perfect protection. Yet families are taking immediate action in response to cases of children who were vaccinated according to schedule, but still contracted the virus. In addition, recent accusations against vaccines point towards a potential link to autism. Thus, some parents question why they should risk exposing their young child to autism with a vaccine that will not guarantee full protection. This philosophy is often supplemented with the rationalization that natural immunity built from pox parties is stronger and lasts longer than that acquired from a vaccine [13]. The concept of chickenpox parties arises from this redirection of trust.

So, which direction should the nation take? Modern medicine (vaccines) or medieval traditions (pox parties)?

Medical professionals are also divided on the issue. For example, Sally’s pediatrician drastically understates the possibility of chickenpox symptoms intensifying when stating, “The only reason the chickenpox vaccine is mandatory is to keep parents at work” [14]. Opinions like these have encouraged certain parents to believe that varicella caught at pox parties safely leads to immunity with greater longevity, eluding the risk of the more dangerous adult-onset shingles.

Most doctors and health experts are against the idea of pox parties. The first point they bring up is the chance that the initially mild symptoms of the virus could turn into more severe complications [15,16]. They say that ignoring vaccines only to avoid a tentative connection with autism is not worth the risk of landing your child in the Intensive Care Unit. Dr. Louis Cooper of Columbia University eloquently reflects this idea, “The fact is that they’re right; chickenpox for most children is a mild illness. But when you see children who have the misfortune of one of the complications that are possible, you never forget it” [17]. The second point concerns the family members. The varicella virus, or any other germs, that a child picks up from a pox party can also affect those with weakened protection in the absence of booster shots. Since adult-onset shingles is far more dangerous, the risk to other family members that pox parties bring is too great [18].

The healthy lifestyle trend that has enraptured our nation influences the rise of chickenpox parties. Significant numbers of families are now religiously living the word “natural.” This may involve exclusively purchasing whole, unprocessed, organic foods and avoiding vaccines, which go against establishing a natural immunity [19]. Could these families be putting others around them in potential danger by intentionally searching out chickenpox infections? In small numbers, these families practicing their individual rights may not create a significant impact. But, if this movement gains enough momentum, will the threat upon national health take precedence?

While industrialized nations such as the United States have the luxury of avoiding chickenpox vaccines in the name of a more natural life, the World Health Organization raises the issue of poorer countries unable to afford the price and storage costs of varicella vaccines. Controlled inoculation may be an economic alternative to vaccinations in this situation. The only disadvantage is that chickenpox symptoms may escalate to a life-threatening level that exceeds the capacity of the developing country’s hopsitals.

If “chickens” are not creating an uproar, then the “pig” is. “Swine flu flings” are the latest fad among controlled inoculation advocates [20]. Good luck dealing with far greater risks.

References

 

1. Torgovnick, Kate. “Inside New York Chicken Pox Parties.” Page Six Magazine. The New York Post Holdings, Inc. January 11, 2009. http://www.nypost.com/pagesixmag/issues/20090111/Inside+New+York+Chicken+Pox+Parties (accessed October 4, 2009).

2. Seward, Jane F., et al. “Varicella Disease After Introduction of Varicella Vaccine in the United States, 1995-2000.” The Journal of the American Medical Association 287, no. 5 (February 2002): 606-611.

3. Henry, Shannon. “A Pox on My Child: Cool!” The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company. September 20, 2005. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/19/AR2005091901225.html (accessed October 3, 2009).

4. Torgovnick, “Inside New York Chicken Pox Parties”

5. Ibid.

6. Henry, “A Pox on My Child: Cool!”

7. Torgovnick, “Inside New York Chicken Pox Parties”

8. Mayo Clinic Staff. “Chickenpox.” MayoClinic.com: Diseases and Conditions. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. September 5, 2008. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/chickenpox/DS00053 (accessed October 3, 2009).

9. Ibid.

10. Organization, World Health. “Varicella vaccines: WHO Position Paper.” Weekly Epidemiological Record, August 7, 1998: 241-248.

11. Mayo Clinic Staff, “Chickenpox”

12. World Health Organization, “Varicella vaccines: WHO Position Paper”

13. Friedman, Emily. “Doctors Wary of Dangerous Pox Parties.” ABC News: Health. ABC News Internet Ventures. February 2, 2009. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Story?id=6772216&page=1 (accessed October 3, 2009).

14. Torgovnick, “Inside New York Chicken Pox Parties”

15. Henry, “A Pox on My Child: Cool!”

16. Friedman, “Doctors Wary of Dangerous Pox Parties”

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. McNeil Jr., Donald G. “Debating the Wisdom of ‘Swine Flu Parties’.” The New York Times, May 7, 2009, New York ed.: A14.

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