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WebMD Feature

The rubber-gloved health-care workers who inject kids with disease-halting immunizations may have only themselves to blame.

Vaccines have proved so successful in eliminating their target diseases that some parents of school-aged children have gotten a bit lax about completing the complicated battery of injections. Not a good idea, say public health officials, because even relatively minor childhood infections such as chickenpox sometimes result in severe illness.

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It's hard to believe, but not so long ago, parents used to organize gatherings to expose their children to the varicella zoster virus, thinking chickenpox was just a benign childhood disease, and that it was best for kids to get it over with.

"People thought it was a rite of passage," says Dr. Mary Glode, a professor of pediatric infectious disease and an infectious disease specialist at Denver's Children's Hospital. "There used to be chickenpox parties."

Sad to say, even five years after the varicella vaccine hit the market, the Denver hospital sees a child a day with chickenpox complications. One such youngster had been a healthy 8-year-old before contracting the illness, which normally runs its course in four days. The child was hospitalized for four months, comatose and paralyzed by a spinal-cord infection, a rare complication.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), before the varicella vaccine was available, some 4 million people got chickenpox annually -- mostly children under age 6. Some 11,000 required hospitalization, and 100 died each year.

"They're big numbers," says Dr. Glode. "Even though, as a parent, you may have only seen the neighbors' children and they may have done fine, at a national level, we don't like this disease."

Will the 'Cure' Give Me the Disease?

Considering the potentially severe consequences of childhood illnesses, and the toll in lost school and work days, most parents are eager to get their kids immunized. But some shun vaccines like the plague, fearing the shots will give their kids the diseases they aim to prevent.

"Every vaccine has potential side effects," says Dr. Benjamin Estrada, an assistant professor at the University of South Alabama's division of pediatric infectious diseases, "but the benefits of getting them outweigh the risks by a large percentage."

And some older vaccines have been changed to lessen the chance of side effects and improve overall safety. A newer polio vaccine, for example, will eventually eliminate any chance of infants getting the disease via immunization. And U.S. Food and Drug Administration worries that a hepatitis-B vaccine exposed children to too much mercury prompted creation of a mercury-free version, notes Dr. Estrada.

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