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'Pox parties': Coming to a mailbox near you?

BOOSTER SHOTS: Oddities, musings and news from the
health world

November 04, 2011|By Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times / for the Booster Shots blog
  • Are you scared enough of vaccines to give your kid a lollipop that's supposedly been licked by another child with chicken pox? Some people are trying this. It's not a good idea.
Are you scared enough of vaccines to give your kid a lollipop that's… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

This week, press reports emerged that some parents, hoping to avoid giving their kids the chickenpox vaccine, were arranging through Facebook to pay strangers to send them "[licked] lollipops, spit or other items" from kids with the illness.

The idea is to expose the kids to the virus to build immunity without having to get a shot.  

It's a lousy strategy, doctors say.

Dr. Wilbert Mason, a professor of clinical pediatrics at USC's Keck School of Medicine and an infectious disease expert at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, said he was "dumbfounded" by the news.  "I'm speechless, which will make for a very bad interview," he told Booster Shots.  "How could people be so stupid?"

For starters, he said, sending chicken poxthrough the mail probably won't work, because the varicella virus needs cells to live in, and there probably would be very few cells in spit or on a used lollipop.  "It's unlikely the virus would survive long enough," he said.  

But more resilient types of infections -- dangerous ones -- could make it, including hepatitis B, group A strep, and staph germs.  

Getting chickenpox "naturally" provides immunity that may be more long-lasting than immunity from the vaccinebut can cause complications.  It's rare, but children with varicella can die if they develop pneumonia or encephalitis, Mason said.  

Also, chickenpox blisters often get infected, and if they get infected with invasive group A strep, "it can kill [a child] in hours," he added.

"The most important risk factor for a child getting that infection is varicella," he said.  "Since we've had the varicella vaccine, we've seen a decrease in children with invasive group A strep.  For me, that's the most compelling reason to get it."

Thirty years ago, it was common for parents to bring their kids over to a sick friend's house to get exposed to chickenpox -- maybe that's why today's "pox parties" seem like a good option to parents put off by vaccines.  Mason likened the practice to playing roulette.  "It was not a good idea then, and it's still not a good idea," he said.
 
UCLAinfectious disease expert Dr. Peter Katona was even more blunt: "I'd like to see charges pressed here," he said, referring to the practice of sending the virus through the mail.

Officials may already be on it. The Associated Press reported Friday that Jerry Martin, a U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, issued a warning that sending chickenpox through the mail was illegal. 

Return to the Booster Shots blog.

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