'Pox Parties' Pooh-Poohed
Chickenpox Vaccination Safer, Surer Than Deliberately Infecting Kids
Sept. 29, 2005 -- Would you deliberately infect your kids with chickenpox by
taking them to "pox parties"?
It sounds like a plot line from The Simpsons. In fact, it
is a plot line from The Simpsons.
Surprisingly, pox parties are popping up in neighborhoods in several U.S.
cities. On Internet bulletin boards and blogs, rumors spread that the
chickenpox vaccine is somehow unsafe or ineffective. Parents worried by these
rumors join email rings. When one of these parents' children gets chickenpox,
the parents invite others in the community to a pox party.
But a safe and effective chickenpox vaccine is part of the recommended
childhood vaccination series. It keeps 85% of vaccinated kids from ever getting
the illness, says chickenpox virus expert Anne A. Gershon, MD, director of the
division of pediatric infectious diseases at New York's Columbia
"In a time when we have the chickenpox vaccine available -- one of the
safest vaccines we have ever had, and one that works very well -- there is no
point in exposing your child to the natural infection," Gershon tells
A Dangerous Recipe
A "natural mothering" web site gives a recipe for spreading
varicella zoster virus -- the chickenpox germ. It advises parents to pass a
whistle from the infected child to other children.
"It is absolute lunacy," UCLA infectious disease specialist Peter
Katona, MD, tells WebMD.
Adults who get chickenpox for the first time get a much more serious disease
than do children. But even for children, chickenpox isn't a walk in the park.
And every once in a while, a child gets a very serious form of the disease. One
in 50,000 kids gets a brain infection that causes retardation or death. And
itchy chickenpox blisters can get infected with dangerous bacteria.
"Imagine losing a child because you were dumb enough to bring him to a
pox party," Gershon says.
Gershon, in fact, favors giving kids a second chickenpox vaccination. That,
she says, would ensure that virtually all kids would safely develop immunity.
And it would prevent waning immunity after a first shot, which sometimes
happens in the 15% of kids who don't get full immunity from the recommended
vaccination at age 12-15 months.
There's another reason for kids to get the chickenpox vaccine: shingles.
Chickenpox virus is a herpes virus that stays in the body for life. When it
gets reactivated, a person gets shingles. Sometimes this causes a very painful
condition called postherpetic neuralgia -- a condition that may be
A growing body of evidence, Gershon says, suggests that childhood chickenpox
vaccination prevents adult shingles.
If you've already had chickenpox, there's still hope. A new, high-dose
chickenpox vaccine shows promise for preventing shingles in the elderly.