Parents deliberately expose children to chickenpox to promote immunity

photo A 3-D computer-enhanced electron microscope photo of the Varicella zoster virus, also known as chicken pox. Photo by Michael Taylor/ShutterStock

BY THE NUMBERS1995 The year the chicken poxvaccine became available105 Average deaths annually from chicken pox between 1990 and 199414 Total number of deaths from chicken pox in 200710,600 Average number of people hospitalized each year in the U.S. before the vaccine4 million Average number of people who would get chicken pox each year in the U.S. before the vaccineSource: CDC and Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of PediatricsFAST FACTGeorgia and Tennessee require that children receive the chicken pox vaccine before they enter day care or school.REACTIONS TO CHICKEN POX VACCINESoreness or swelling where the shot is given (about 1 out of 5 children and up to 1 out of 3 adolescents and adults)Fever (1 person out of 10, or less)Mild rash, up to a month after vaccination (1 person out of 25); it's possible for these people to infect other members of their household, but it's extremely rare.Seizure (jerking or staring) caused by fever (very rare).Pneumonia (very rare)Other serious problems, including severe brain reactions and low blood count, have been reported after a chicken pox vaccination. These happen so rarely, experts cannot tell whether they are caused by the vaccine or not.Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Tucked away in the far recesses of the Internet, a strange black market for chicken pox has been forming in Tennessee and nationally by parents who fear that required vaccines will harm their children.

They purposely expose their children to viruses such as chicken pox, the mumps and measles, hoping they will develop natural immunity, which they argue is more effective than the vaccines.

But with fewer children contracting those viruses because of widespread vaccine use, they are having to go to extreme lengths to catch them.

Chicken pox parties are advertised through word of mouth, invitation-only Facebook groups and message boards. In October last year, a woman in Nashville was caught by a television station selling chicken pox-soaked lollipops for $50 a pop.

"I have PayPal and plenty of spit and suckers," read the message on the Facebook group "Find a Pox Party In Your Area." "It works, too, because that's how we got it! Our round was Fed Ex'd from Arizona. We've spread cooties to Cookeville, Knoxville and Louisiana!"

State public health officials said they also have heard reports of mothers sending spit-filled rags to one another to rub on their children.

"My impression is that [chicken pox parties] are scattered across the U.S. and not terribly uncommon," said Tim Jones, the state epidemiologist with the Tennessee Department of Health. "It is a really misguided idea."

A spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Health said the state has no way of tracking or knowing the number of "pox parties" or parents who expose their children to chicken pox or any other childhood disease.

"We don't know and cannot offer any scientific proof to whether the program is widespread," said Connie F. Smith.

Mailing chicken pox is illegal, according to Jerry Martin, U.S. attorney in Nashville. He said his office will start cracking down on the trafficking of viruses such as chicken pox, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Health department officials are surprised and disappointed that some parents are looking for the chicken pox in an era of vaccines. The shots are cheap and effective, and most people see no side effects, Jones said. They also can help children avoid scarring and secondary infections from itchy lesions, not to mention lost days at school.

A 15-year study published last year by the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases showed the vaccine had lowered chicken pox deaths in the United States by 88 percent from the prevaccine years -- from an average of 105 deaths annually between 1990 and 1994 to 14 deaths in 2007. The vaccine became available in 1995.

Thirteen of those deaths were adults who got the virus later in life, data show.

"It is not justifiable to purposely expose kids to the disease," Jones said. "Chicken pox kills people every year."

But chicken pox parties aren't a new idea.

For years before the vaccine became available, it was common for parents to arrange gatherings among neighbors or church families to share the pox.

Chicken pox easily spreads from one child to another by touching, sneezing or coughing, and it can make the rounds several days before the lesions begin to form, according to the National Institutes of Health. And the virus carrier will continue to share it until the blisters have crusted over.

Before the vaccine, "it wasn't a question of if your child would get the chicken pox, it was when," said Peter Rawlings, a doctor with Pediatric Diagnostic Associates in Chattanooga.

Parents knew their children should get the virus early because the later they got it, the more severe the symptoms, he said. He knows of a mother who nearly died and lost her baby because she contracted chicken pox during her pregnancy.

Steve Markum, a Red Bank resident, said he remembers a neighbor bringing her son over to catch his chicken pox in 1957.

"His mother wanted him to get it over with rather than risk getting it when he was older," he said. "They brought him over to catch the measles, too."

A vaccine for the chicken pox was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration 16 years ago. A combination vaccine for measles, mumps, rubella and varicella (chicken pox) was licensed in 2005, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The vaccine is now required for children in Tennessee and Georgia who attend child care, school or college, but parents can file for a medical or religious exemption.

Still, parents like Lisa Dupree, of Chattanooga, disagree with doctors and public health officials and say the damage done by vaccines is a greater risk than catching a common virus like chicken pox.

Dupree, who homeschools a son and a daughter and runs a support group for moms with autistic children, will not give her children the chicken pox vaccine because she believes her son has suffered from severe vaccine-triggered side effects after being given other shots.

"He lost his speech and language skills. He had toxic diarrhea, skin rashes," she said. "My son looked like a cancer patient. To go through that is just terrible. ... Vaccines are given too early and too often."

Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, Dupree said, "The preservatives [in them] are unsafe and unproven."

Like many parents, she isn't sure if what's best from a public health perspective is what's best for the individual. She said she knows parents who have gone to chicken pox parties, but she isn't sure if she will take her 11-year-old daughter to one.

Her daughter is old enough to decide how and when she wants to catch it, she said.

Staff writer Chris Carroll contributed to this report.

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