Chickenpox season is here — that dreaded time of the year between March and May when new infections spike in the United States. The safest way for parents to protect their children is with the vaccine.
The vaccine Varivax, made by Merck & Co., has reduced mortality-rates from chickenpox by 90% since it was approved in March 1995. Before then, parents often hosted “pox parties” to deliberately infect their children at a young age because infections tend to be more serious in adults.
Now that we have a vaccine, there is no reason to have a pox party — but they still happen all the time. For people who can’t attend in person, some groups will even send a lollipop with an infected child’s spit on it.
The parties are most popular among parents who falsely believe the vaccine is more dangerous than chickenpox. The reality is that chickenpox is about 1,000-times more likely to cause side effects.
What’s the worst that could happen?
In children, chickenpox can cause skin infections, scarring, bleeding problems, encephalitis (brain inflammation), pneumonia, hepatitis, toxic shock syndrome, bone and joint infections, and even death.
You might get a visit from Child Protective Services (CPS). That’s what happened to Amanda Witt, a mom in Plano, Texas who hosted pox parties and had a Facebook group for 300 anti-vaccine parents.
You might also get in some legal trouble, as criminal law attorney Pete Schulte explained to CBS News:
If a child is introduced to the chickenpox and becomes seriously ill, or dies, then the parents could face criminal liability out of the penal code.”
Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, a member of the herpes family. Before the vaccine, around 4 million people got chickenpox every year, over 11,000 were hospitalized, and 100-150 people died.
Once infected, the virus stays in the body forever. It re-activates in around 33% of adults to cause a painful disease called shingles. One in five people with shingles develop excruciating chronic pain.
The vaccine also has serious risks — high fever, seizures, allergic reactions, brain reactions, and even death — but they are very rare. Two doses of the vaccine are 98% effective, but vaccinated children who get chickenpox usually have a milder illness.
The most important thing for parents to know is that the CDC recommends separating immunizations against chickenpox (Varicella) and MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella). Studies show that a single MMRV immunization doubles the child’s risk of fever-induced seizures to about 1 in 1,250.