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Chicken Pox Parties

Yesterday, my toddler and I were invited to a party – a chicken pox party.

Have you heard of chicken pox parties? The parents of a child who has caught chickenpox invite his or her friends to their home to catch the disease, believing it’s best for a child to have the disease early and “get it over with”, and then be immune for the rest of their lives. Catching chickenpox in adulthood is a much more serious disease with a much higher complication rate.

Chicken pox is routinely immunized against in the USA but some parents believe that the “natural” immunity from catching the real virus is better than the “fake” immunity from the vaccine.

In most cases, in a healthy child, chicken pox is a mild disease that gets better after a week or two. Proponents of chicken pox parties argue that getting the disease now is better than risking the side effects of the vaccine, and that the vaccine isn’t even particularly effective.

They have a point about the effectiveness. Once you’ve had chickenpox, you won’t get it again. But what about the vaccine? The vaccine has quoted effacy rates of around 80%, which means 80% of children immunized will actually become immune to chicken pox, and the rest will be either somewhat, or not at all immune. The vaccine has only been available for around 20 years, so no-one can say if it does give lifetime immunity.

And in fact some children loose the vaccine immunity 5-8 years after being vaccinated. Some people are worried that as the vaccine immunity wears off in adults, there will be an epidemic of adult chickenpox, which is much more painful, and can be much more serious. But there’s no evidence for this. Many doctors believe children immunized as babies will either keep their immunity for life, or loose it with a few years. The ones that loose immunity will likely catch chickenpox as a young child, and then be immune anyway.

And about the side effects? Less clear. Chicken pox vaccine has never been linked to autism, like MMR has, but side effects of the vaccine are reported for around 5% of vaccines given. Most are mild – a small rash, low fever – but rarely more serious reactions occur. No deaths have ever been reported as a result of the chicken pox vaccine.

No so for chicken pox itself. Almost all cases are mild, itchy, annoying, but mild, and get better. Complications can occur though. Before the vaccine was introduced, every year in the USA, 4 million people caught chicken pox, 10,000 people were admitted to hospital, and around 100 – half of them children – died.

40 million doses of chicken pox vaccine have been given since it was introduced in 1995. So since 1995, no-one has died from the vaccine. In the 40 million chicken pox cases in the ten years prior to the vaccine being introduced, 1,000 people died of the disease.

My feeling is that it’s too early to tell whether it’s better for a child to be vaccinated, or try to get natural immunity from a chicken pox party. There seems to be potential advantages and disadvantages to both.

There’s a very serious reason why chicken pox parties are a bad idea. It’s got nothing to do with the little guests that are trying to get infected. It’s to do with the adult guests, and anyone else who they might transmit the disease to.

Pregnant women should never expose themselves to chicken pox. Chicken pox can cause birth defects, including damage to the baby’s brain, skin and eyes, and other neurological damage. Don’t go to a chicken pox party if you are pregnant, might be pregnant, or even trying to get pregnant. Or live with, work with, or spend time with anyone who is pregnant.

Young infants, the very old, people with AIDS, leukemia, and other immune-compromised diseases are all at a much greater risk of complications from chicken pox. Chicken pox won’t neatly infect just the kids it’s supposed to. The children can spread it to any unintended person who may not be very grateful.

So your child might catch it, but so might you. The article promoting chicken pox parties describes the case of the uncle of a child that caught chicken pox at the party as the “the worst case his doctor had ever seen” with sore kidneys and hundreds of lesions, even down his throat.

So in summary – going to a chicken pox party may, or may not benefit your child more than the chicken pox vaccine would. No-one really knows the answer because the vaccine is still new. But the risk to you, to pregnant women, babies, and other people you know, outweighs the benefits.

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