What to do if you get invited to a chickenpox party? Don’t go.

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A few weeks ago, I stumbled across the Facebook group “Chicken Pox Parties—New York Metro Area.” It has 143 members, all of whom, I’m guessing, are parents who have chosen not to vaccinate their kids against chickenpox and instead hope to build their kids’ immunity the old-fashioned way, by directly exposing them to the germs of a pox-infected child. They are not alone: Facebook has 14 other chickenpox party groups organized by geographical region, and if you can’t get to one in person, you can always ask to be sent a lollipop with an infected child’s spit on it.

chickenpox

Perhaps these parents go this route because they’re distrustful of the vaccine or they think that inoculating against chickenpox is dumb. For those of us who endured chickenpox as kids and emerged relatively unscathed, the varicella vaccine, as it’s called, does at first seem kind of dumb—another unnecessary medical intervention being thrust upon us and another box to check off on the never-ending paperwork that is raising a child. So should we say no to our pediatricians and bring a pox on all our houses instead?

After evaluating the medical evidence, my answer is an emphatic no. The shot is by far the better way to go. That’s because although we might recall chickenpox as a small but annoying blip on our childhood radar it can be dangerous. True, before the vaccine was licensed in 1995, only about 100 to 150 American kids died of chickenpox every year, and most of these children had underlying immune system issues. But every year, chickenpox landed about 11,000 kids in the hospital. It’s not that they couldn’t handle all the itching; one study from Europe (where many countries do not vaccinate against chickenpox) has found that one-fifth of all otherwise healthy kids who are hospitalized for chickenpox suffer neurological problems such as strokes, meningitis, convulsions, and encephalitis. Chickenpox can also cause septic shock, pneumonia, necrotizing fasciitis (that’s flesh-eating bacteria), and other bacterial infections.

Does the vaccine pose risks, too? Of course; every medical intervention does. But the risks associated with the vaccine are much lower than the risks associated with infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration monitor potential vaccine side effects using the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. VAERS isn’t perfect. For one thing, it doesn’t record problems unless patients or their doctors report them. The complaints about the varicella vaccine that get recorded in VAERS aren’t always caused by the varicella vaccine, either. For instance, if a person falls ill soon after getting the shot, it’s possible that the timing is simply a coincidence—maybe the child was catching the flu anyway. Moreover, about half of VAERS complaints about the varicella vaccine describe problems people experience after receiving varicella along with other vaccinations, so it’s impossible to know which vaccine caused the reaction.

Even though the system is imperfect, the numbers suggest that the varicella vaccine is much safer than the infection. VAERS found that between 1995 and 2005, 0.052 percent of people who got the varicella vaccine—that’s 52 out of every 100,000 vaccinees—complained about complications, most of them minor. These included rash (17 out of 100,000), fever (11 out of 100,000), and pain at the injection site (seven out of 100,000). More rarely, the vaccine was associated with diarrhea (1.7 out of 100,000) and convulsions (1.8 out of 100,000 ). And yes, the vaccine was associated with 60 deaths during that decade (one out of every million doses), but most occurred in children who had serious congenital problems or immune-related deficiencies and who should never have gotten the vaccine in the first place. Ten of these deaths were categorized as “crib deaths”—basically, SIDS—so it’s impossible to know whether the vaccine caused them.

There are other reasons to give your child the vaccine, too. As more and more kids get vaccinated against varicella, the chances of planning a successful pox party drop: There are simply far fewer kids out there getting—and transmitting—chickenpox. You’ll have to work on that invite list a long time before you find your “patient zero.” And the longer it takes an unvaccinated child to catch the infection, the more dangerous that infection becomes, because more severe cases of chickenpox tend to occur in older kids.

Source:
Slate

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