Some parents, who refuse vaccinations to protect their kids, employ a dangerous method to “naturally immunize” their children against chickenpox – the pox party. Essentially, parents intentionally infect their children with chickenpox by having them around other children who have the active infection. But what these ignorant parents fail to see is that chickenpox can kill – it’s not a disease to be wished on any child.
These parents fail to understand the whole world of immunology, because they aren’t immunizing their kids against anything. They’re deliberately infecting their children with a potentially deadly pathogen. The whole point of vaccination is get a “natural immunity” without the whole pathogen issue. It’s a simple concept really.
Some of these pox parties have gotten the attention of public health and child welfare supporters, and they have contacted local authorities where these killing parties – I mean pox parties, sorry – have occurred. The dangerous people whine “that they are being bullied online by people who report them to the police.”
Not that I want to be precise about the English language, but it’s not bullying when one wants to protect the lives of children, and contacting authorities about a potentially dangerous practice. This is bullying.
Let’s look at chickenpox, and why chickenpox can kill – time to get out some science.
What is chickenpox?
Chickenpox is a highly infectious and contagious disease caused by the Varicella zoster virus (VZV). It causes a blister-like rash, and other symptoms include itching, fevers, coughing and sneezing.
The incubation period for chickenpox is approximately 10-21 days, and it spreads to others through coughing, sneezing, or coming into contact with the blister fluid in the spots. Chickenpox is contagious from around 48 hours prior to the appearance of the first spots until every spot is crusted over). Like many diseases, VZV is contagious before many symptoms appear.
- pneumonia and respiratory failure
- bleeding problems as a result of thrombocytopenia
- neurological injury including ataxia (losing control of muscles and coordination), meningitis, encephalitis and transverse myelitis (infection and inflammation of various parts of the central nervous system and spinal cord).
- bacterial infections of the skin and soft tissues in children including Group A streptococcal infections
- blood stream infections (sepsis)
- toxic shock syndrome
- bone infections
- joint infections
- congenital varicella (if a pregnant woman gets chicken pox, one in 50 babies will be affected). This includes skin and limb deformities, eye problems, and brain injury. Infants with congenital varicella can also develop shingles in infancy
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How to prevent chickenpox
The chickenpox vaccine is the most effective method of preventing chickenpox. No, swallowing a boatload of vitamin C or avoiding gluten is not going to prevent chickenpox.
According to the CDC, one dose of the vaccine leads to an 80-85% reduction in the incidence of catching the disease at all, and a 95-98% reduction in severe disease. Better still, two doses given at least 4 weeks apart increases the effectiveness of the vaccine to approximately 98%. Moreover, the vaccine is nearly 100% effective at preventing severe forms of the disease.
Chickenpox and shingles
Shingles, known medically as Herpes zoster (HZ), is caused by the Varicella zoster virus, the known cause of chickenpox. After the chickenpox infection, VZV latently persists, without symptoms, in the nerves of the spine. For unknown reasons, VZV is reactivated from latency, and moves along sensory nerves to the endings in the skin, where it replicates causing the characteristic HZ rash, commonly called shingles.
There is no known cure for VZV, though it can be treated with antiviral medications. Although the infection presents with a rash, commonly fairly painful, it usually subsides within three to five weeks. Unfortunately, about one in five patients develop a painful condition called postherpetic neuralgia, which is often difficult to manage. Because VZV is never eliminated, after a shingles attack, VZV again becomes latent, to attack again sometime in the future.
Let me be clear. The only way to get shingles is from chickenpox – it doesn’t magically appear out of nothing. And deliberately infecting a child with chickenpox sentences that child to a lifetime of potential shingles outbreaks. Why would anyone do that?
There is a myth that shingles is suppressed by adults frequently encountering the chickenpox infection, which, in a way, immunizes the adult against the reactivation of the virus. There’s a couple of problems with that myth. First, since most parents are sane and vaccinate their children against chickenpox, encountering the disease in the wild is rare.
Moreover, the myth is unsupported by real science – there is little evidence that increased chickenpox vaccination of children leads to higher rates of shingles in adults. In a recent article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, study author Dr. Craig Hales, a medical epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), examined Medicare (the US Federal insurance system for disabled and elderly individuals) claims data from 1992 to 2010 that included about 2.8 million people over the age of 65.
Hales found that annual rates of shingles increased 39 percent over the 18-year study period, which might make one conclude that the suppression of chickenpox outbreaks lead to a large increase in shingles. However, the researchers failed to find a statistically significant change in the rate after the introduction of the chickenpox vaccine–in other words, the rate of shingles seems to be increasing regardless of chickenpox vaccinations. Furthermore, the researchers hypothesized that the rate of shingles would be lower in states with lower chickenpox vaccination uptake, but they, in fact, determined that the rate of shingles didn’t vary from state to state where there were different rates of chickenpox vaccine coverage.
Myth that the vaccine causes chickenpox
Yes, this myth exists. It’s based on the fact that the chickenpox vaccine contains a “live attenuated” virus. What that means is that the VZV is weakened so that it is not pathogenic (that is, it is no longer virulent). However, it contains all of the information that induces an immune response.
This is how vaccines work. They cause an immune response without the risk of the actual disease. Amazing how immunology can work. Of course, it’s best if you actually studied it for more than 15 minutes on Google.
As I mentioned previously, in about 15% of chickenpox vaccines given, a very mild form of chickenpox can occur. However, this type of chickenpox infection cannot be spread by coughing and sneezing, because the virus is attenuated and not really contagious.
The risk of spread of vaccine associated chickenpox is so tiny that it’s almost impossible to find. The CDC reports that out of 55 million doses of vaccines given, there have only been five documented cases of people getting infected from contact with a vaccinated person. That’s a 0.0000091% chance of transmission. That falls way below the 1 out 100,000 risk of death from the vaccine.
And one more thing. Because the VZV in the vaccine is attenuated (weakened), there is only a small risk that it could become dormant and then reappear as shingles in later life. And even this risk is much lower compared to the risk of shingles after natural disease.
Chickenpox can kill
Unless you want to ignore every single piece of real evidence, pox parties are dangerous. Chickenpox can cause serious complications, including death, even in otherwise healthy children.
The chickenpox vaccine is generally free to every American child and, probably, for every adult. It is relatively safe, and by any standard, extremely effective. This cannot be said of pox parties, which can only harm children without any benefit whatsoever. And if you throw in the long-term risk of shingles, it’s even worse.
Vaccines saves lives. And chickenpox vaccines definitely saves lives.
- Hales CM, Harpaz R, Joesoef MR, Bialek SR. Examination of links between herpes zoster incidence and childhood varicella vaccination. Ann Intern Med. 2013 Dec 3;159(11):739-45. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-159-11-201312030-00006. PubMed PMID: 24297190.
- Weinmann S, Chun C, Schmid DS, Roberts M, Vandermeer M, Riedlinger K, Bialek SR, Marin M. Incidence and clinical characteristics of herpes zoster among children in the varicella vaccine era, 2005-2009. J Infect Dis. 2013 Dec 1;208(11):1859-68. doi: 10.1093/infdis/jit405. Epub 2013 Aug 6. PubMed PMID: 23922376.