More respect for chickenpox, please

I was in grade school when I came down with chickenpox. I don’t remember much about it, other than being itchy and uncomfortable.

This was long before a chickenpox vaccine was developed. Back then, the majority of kids had the disease by the time they were in their teens. If a vaccine had been available, I suspect many parents would have gladly agreed to it in order to avoid the illness and misery.

It’s an entirely different ballgame now. Most younger adults have grown up with little or no firsthand experience of childhood diseases, such as measles, chickenpox and whooping cough, that once were common. There’s less trust in vaccines and more worries about vaccine safety.

When you put all these factors together, they can result in some questionable decision-making, of which so-called chickenpox parties are a prime example. In fact, health officials are so concerned about the pox-party trend that they’ve been speaking out; the latest warning came last week from the Minnesota Medical Association.

Chickenpox parties are nothing new. For those who don’t know, a chickenpox party involves bringing children together with a child who has the disease, in hopes the exposure will make everyone sick so they can get the disease over with and be naturally immunized for life. At one time, they were seen as somewhat of a convenience, allowing parents to plan for a child’s illness and to have their child contract the disease earlier in life, when chickenpox tends to be milder. But since the mid-1990s, when the chickenpox vaccine was introduced, another element has entered the discussion: fears about the vaccine and the belief that it’s safer for children to acquire natural immunity from the disease itself.

The chickenpox party is a controversial practice. Many people see it as unnecessarily risky. Others see nothing wrong with it.

What’s not exactly clear is why chickenpox doesn’t seem to inspire the same level of caution in many people as other infectious diseases do – influenza, for instance, or whooping cough.

A little background on chickenpox:

It’s caused by the varicella zoster virus, a member of the herpes virus family. There are records of it as far back as ancient Babylonian times. It was first formally identified by a 9th-century Persian scientist. Despite its name, it doesn’t have anything to do with chickens nor is it related to smallpox.

Modern-day Americans tend to regard it as a non-serious disease – and for the most part, it usually is. But this fact shouldn’t obscure the complications that can come with chickenpox. Teenagers and adults who get chickenpox can become severely ill. Complications include pneumonia, encephalitis and secondary bacterial infection of the soft tissues. The disease can be especially serious among women who are late in pregnancy or individuals who are immune-compromised. It’s worth noting that chickenpox, along with measles, smallpox and venereal disease, was among the diseases brought by early colonists to the Americas, decimating a native Indian population that had never been exposed and hence was defenseless.

Before the chickenpox vaccine became available in the mid-1990s, there used to be 4 million cases of chickenpox in the U.S. each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chickenpox resulted in 10,500 to 13,000 hospitalizations each year and 100 to 150 deaths. Vaccination has lowered the number of hospitalizations by 71 percent and the number of deaths among children and teens younger than age 20 by 97 percent. Public health officials worry this trend might be reversed if growing numbers of parents decide to skip the chickenpox vaccine.

For what it’s worth, you can find pediatricians and nurses who don’t think it’s essential to vaccinate children against chickenpox. Based on early experience, the vaccine was about 85 percent effective at preventing the disease. Many states now recommend a second dose of vaccine, which has been found to boost its effectiveness to better than 95 percent. But there continues to be debate on how well the vaccine truly works or how long it stays effective. In view of the fact that the vaccine has been in use for less than two decades, it will take time for research to help answer these questions more definitively. In the meantime, there’s bound to be confusion and conflicting opinions.

No one can force parents to vaccinate their children. Health decisions are among the most personal decisions we make. When infectious disease is involved, however, there’s a case to be made for protecting the health of the whole community. Chickenpox is not always the mild, harmless disease that many people think it is, and deliberate exposure at a chickenpox party can have unplanned, unintended consequences. Chickenpox could use a little more respect.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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