Would you give your child a lollipop that was infected with the chickenpox virus? Most parents would say no way, but some want to throw a “pox party” to make sure their child gets sick.
You may have heard about them. They are called pox parties, and here’s how they work. You have, or know someone who has, a child who is sick with chickenpox. A party is held so that the sick child can play with other children who are not sick. They play together, and share drinking cups or lollipops, food or wash cloths so that the well children are exposed to the virus in hopes that they will also get sick.
Why would a parent deliberately expose their child to chickenpox?
Many of these parents believe that getting the virus naturally will offer a longer lasting immunity than the vaccination and booster shots required by schools. They also say that smallpox is a “weak” virus that is not dangerous.
Dr. Louis Cooper, a spokesman for the Infectious Disease Society of America and a professor emeritus of pediatrics at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, told ABC News "I deeply regret that parents who are trying to do the right thing just don't get it. 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."
"The child does not need to be immune-deficient or malnourished to have these complications," said Cooper, who recommends that all parents vaccinate their children against the virus. "It can be an ordinary healthy child, it's Russian roulette."
The chickenpox vaccine, varicella, was first approved for use in the United States in 1995 and is now required in every state before a child can enter day care or school. Exceptions, including proof that the child has contracted the virus on his or her own, as well as parents who refrain from getting their children vaccinated because of religious reasons, vary from state to state.
“Find a Pox Party” sites have turned up on Facebook and other social media outlets across the country. People have been selling contaminated candy, diapers, and blankets to parents, sometimes shipping these items through the mail.
A Nashville TV station reported on a local woman who charged $50 a pop to ship suckers smothered in saliva by her sick kids.
Spurred by that story, Nashville federal prosecutor Jerry Martin warned parents not to try it. “It’s illegal and unsafe,” Martin told the Associated Press.
Pediatricians are taking a strong stand against pox parties. They warn that children exposed to such practices have a higher risk of developing encephalitis and group A Strep.
Pox parties are not new; they’ve been around for a long time. Before the advent of vaccines smallpox parties and other types of controlled inoculation did reduce death rates due to, for example smallpox, considerably. These practices all but vanished when the smallpox vaccine was introduced.
Vaccinations have been under scrutiny since a 1998 study-now proven to be false- linked autism with childhood vaccinations. Some parents still refuse to get their children vaccinated, believing the study had merit.
Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrician specializing in infectious disease at the department of pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said that many parents who are against vaccinating their children argue that getting the virus naturally is more beneficial to the child's overall health.
"The thinking many parents have is that the natural infection is more likely to induce higher levels of antibodies and longer-lasting immunity than vaccines," Offit said. "That's generally true but the problem is if you make that choice you are also taking the risk of a natural infection, which can mean hospitalization and sometimes death."
Not everyone agrees on the pros and cons of pox parties, but most medical experts say that parents should choose the vaccine.
Curtis Allen is a spokesperson for the Center for Disease Control. He notes that chickenpox is uncomfortable for kids, and suggests that parents who are looking for natural immunity should talk to their pediatricians about the decision not to vaccinate.
"There are a couple of things to know about chickenpox," he said. "First of all, the vaccine is very safe. Secondly, varicella, or chickenpox, is not necessarily a benign disease. Most children ... do fine with it. However, there are some children who become very sick."