The chickenpox used to be a childhood rite of passage as being exposed to the highly infectious disease at an early age was (nearly) inevitable.
But since the Canadian debut of the chickenpox vaccine in 1998, the need to expose children to the itchy, blistery and potentially deadly virus, has significantly dropped.
Despite health experts saying the vaccine is highly effective and safe, some parents are still choosing to forgo this method and instead expose children to the chickenpox the old fashioned way — with an infection party.
Kentucky’s governor recently made headlines after he revealed he purposely exposed his unvaccinated children to chickenpox.
“It’s a terrible idea,” Dr. Tara C. Smith, a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University in Ohio, said. “We have a better way to prevent chickenpox now, so why put your child through that?”
What are chickenpox parties?
A so-called chickenpox party is when parents intentionally expose their unvaccinated children to others who have the highly contagious virus. The hope is to have your child catch the virus and get it over with, as it’s more dangerous to adults than kids. This concept has also been used with the measles and the flu.
Before the chickenpox vaccine, parents held these pox parties for their children as catching the virus was almost inevitable.
“So if your cousin or neighbour had it, you went to their house to catch it and get it over with,” Smith said.
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There is no need to host or attend these parties anymore, but some parents, especially those who do not believe in vaccines, still prefer this method over immunization.
Smith said “it makes no sense,” as the vaccine has a lower dose of the virus than getting the full-blown disease.
“Rather than getting a weakened version of it, they would rather have the wild type, which can cause death and you have a higher risk of getting shingles later on in life,” she said.
The idea of exposing kids to the chickenpox (even after the vaccine debuted) has been around for years.
In 2011, there was even reported cases of parents buying and selling chickenpox-infested lollipops online. The tainted lollipops were intended for vaccine-weary parents who wanted to expose their children to the disease.
Matt Bevin, the Kentucky governor who purposely exposed his unvaccinated children to chickenpox, came under public scrutiny this week after he said he decided to expose all nine of his children to the chickenpox instead of giving them a vaccine.
Bevin told Bowling Green radio station WKCT on Tuesday about how he exposed his kids to the disease, believing it would make them immune. He said he does not support the state’s mandatory chickenpox vaccine.
“They got the chickenpox on purpose because we found a neighbour that had it, and I went and made sure every one of my kids was exposed to it, and they got it,” he said, adding his kids were “miserable for days” but all turned out fine.
The dangers of chickenpox parties
Most children who get the chickenpox go through a few days or weeks of dealing with the itchy blisters, but it also can lead to severe complications, such as pneumonia, toxic shock syndrome, hepatitis and even death.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on its website, that the complication can even happen to the healthiest of children.
“It is not worth taking the chance of exposing your child to someone with the disease. The best way to protect infants and children against chickenpox is to get them vaccinated,” the CDC states.
Not only that, but newborns, teenagers, pregnant woman and cancer patients, have an increased risk of severe complications from chickenpox.
Because of this, the safest way to protect infants and children against chickenpox is to get them vaccinated and not to hold a pox party, the CDC said.
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Chickenpox vaccine or natural immunity?
In the pre-vaccine days, there were around 350,000 reported cases of the chickenpox in Canada every year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. But since the debut of the vaccine, the number dropped to around 1,500 reported cases a year.
And although the vaccine exists, some parents believe the natural immunity children gain from getting the chickenpox is better than the shot.
But is this true?
According to Smith, immunity is immunity. Your body does not know how you got the virus but will build up the immunity no matter what.
“If you get the vaccine, very few people will get a very mild rash. And if you try and build a natural immunity, it is also not perfect … there are cases where people can get the chickenpox more than once,” Smith explained.
She said neither way is perfect, but the vaccine is the safer way to go.
“We have this survival biases, that ‘we lived through this and we were OK,’ but children were hospitalized and it’s not as mild as people may think,” Smith added.
What about the shingles?
Shingles is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus, varicella zoster, later in life. People might catch chickenpox as a child, but although the pox disappears, the virus doesn’t really go away.
But Smith said so far, the vaccine has proven to lower the risk of shingles (when compared to the natural immunity method).
Although chickenpox vaccines do contain a weakened version of the live virus, it is still very rare to get shingles later in life, Dr. William Schaffner, doctor of preventative medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, told Live Science.
“Nearly 99 per cent of children who receive the vaccine will not get chickenpox at all,” he said. “The remaining one per cent who do get it will get a much milder version of it. Therefore, a vast majority of people receiving the immunization will not develop shingles later in life.”
— With files from Global News’ Jesse Ferreras