Chickenpox is a common childhood illness that was a rite of passage for most children, before the varicella vaccine was developed. Chickenpox complications are rare for children, but this disease is highly dangerous, and potentially fatal, for adults.
Before the vaccine was formulated, parents often exposed their children to other kids who had come down with chickenpox. The goal was to get the children sick early, in order to avoid the dangers of chickenpox infection in adulthood. This tradition continues today, in gatherings known as ‘pox parties,’ as well as a more unsavory practice of selling and trading chickenpox-infected items through Craigslist, Facebook, and other social media platforms.
What is Chickenpox?
Chickenpox is a highly contagious illness that is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, and generally occurs in children under the age of fifteen. Key facts include:
- Chickenpox is characterized by 250-500 itchy, fluid-filled blisters that can occur all over the body.
- Before the itchy rash appears, many children experience fever, headache, and stomach aches.
- The virus can be spread by coming into contact with the fluid from the blisters or by proximity to the coughing and sneezing of a contagious person.
- Children can spread the virus one to two days before the blisters are present.
- Chickenpox complications are rare, but can include bacterial infections in the skin, lungs, blood and bones. Pneumonia and encephalitis, swelling of the brain, are also severe complications of chickenpox.
- Adults, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems who get chickenpox can have a severe reaction and are more likely to develop complications.
Pox Parties & Pox Pops
The idea of exposing children to a virus so that they would develop immunity dates back to the 1918 Spanish flu. The thought was that if children were exposed to the first wave of the flu virus, then they would develop immunity in advance of the second, and sometimes a more serious, wave of the virus. Parents have used this idea for other illnesses such as rubella, small pox, chickenpox, and even the Swine Flu pandemic of 2009.
With the help of the Internet, and social media groups like Facebook, pox parties and infected items are easier to find. Parents are even selling and mailing infected items from children who have chickenpox, such as sucked-on lollipops and candies, contaminated clothing, and rags to parents who want to expose their children to the chickenpox virus. (Note: sending contagious materials through the United States Postal Service is a federal offense.)
Whether or not the chickenpox lollipop is able to effectively transmit the virus after a trip through the postal system, giving children contaminated items, and exposing them to pox parties, is dangerous, according to Gerald Sturgeon, MD, FAAP, a long-time practicing pediatrician in Louisville, KY. Dr. Sturgeon spoke to Decoded Science about the risks associated with pox parties,
“Chickenpox isn’t always a simple illness where a child gets an itchy rash and is miserable for a few days. Chickenpox can result in infections such as MRSA which can lead to cellulitis and drug-resistance MRSA. Chickenpox can also result in respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia. These complications can result in hospitalization and sometimes death. This is why I tell parents it’s important to vaccinate your child and to avoid pox parties and those with chickenpox.”
To further understand the complications of chickenpox and the risks associated with pox parties, Decoded Science asked Marjorie Picard, R.N., a school nurse from Plainfield, N.J., why she is opposed to the idea of Pox Parties.
“In the U.S., between 2000 and 2006, 50,000 hospitalizations were prevented by the varicella (chicken pox) vaccine. Chicken pox is not always a mild illness. Prior to the vaccine approval, there were 100 deaths per 10,000 hospital stays. Some children get really sick, from bacterial infections to pneumonia. Kids can get scars on their faces. If a parent brings an infant to the party and he catches it, it can be a very serious illness. The same with elderly relatives, who may not have had chicken pox and who may visit the family. The elderly, and anyone who has a compromised immune system, can be put in a dangerous position. And pregnant women who are unvaccinated and have not had it should stay away from these parties.”
The Pro-Pox Perspective
Decoded Science had the opportunity to interview S.W., a woman whose family participates in pox parties, to explore the other side of this issue.
“My cousin’s daughter (8) came down with chicken pox. My brothers and other cousin brought all six children together to play and gain the virus. The group spent five days staying together at my late grandmothers house, and all six children contracted chicken pox during this time. I was there to help the adults in dealing with the children during this time. I assisted in putting lotion on the sores, keeping the children from picking and scratching, with making meals and with playtime. I saw the children have fun playing together and knowing they weren’t alone in feeling yucky. I was happy to help my brothers out during a stressful time for them.”
Chickenpox is not like a minor case of sniffles – this virus can have serious consequences. Anyone who has been infected with chickenpox is susceptible to shingles in adulthood, for example, not to mention the potential complications arising from the initial infection. In some cases, however, vaccination is not possible due to allergies or other issues. In any case, ordering infected items over the Internet is unsanitary at best, and dangerous at worst. Talk to your doctor before making any decisions about your child’s health.
National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Facts About Chickenpox and Shingles for Adults. (2009). Accessed November 19, 2011.
PubMed. Chickenpox. August 2, 2011. Accessed on November 19, 2011.
Immunization Action Coalition. State Information: Varicella Mandates for School and Child Care. June 8, 2011. Accessed on November 19, 2011.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Varicella-Zoster virus infection. (2011). Accessed November 19, 2011.
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