Local doctor criticizes 'pox parties'

"I no longer immunize for the pox, and I have two children with it now. For those of you who are hoping your child gets pox and thus its lifelong immunity - come on over for coffee!"

Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson read this post on a parenting website earlier this week, reminding her that parents who chose not to immunize their children for the chickenpox continue to try to intentionally infect their kids with the virus so that they don't contract it as adults, when the illness tends to be more serious.

"I think families are doing this because they think they are making a safe choice," Swanson said. "But the science is not on their side."

Swanson admits that pediatricians like herself need to do a better job educating families on the dangerous side effects of the chickenpox. She said that while the majority of chickenpox cases are mild, infected people can develop life-threatening secondary infections; severe pneumonia; brain infections and flesh-eating bacterial infections in scabs.

Before the vaccine was approved and put into use in 1995, Swanson said hundreds of children and adults in the United States died every year from chickenpox and thousands were hospitalized.

"I don't think parents know what virus they are dealing with," Swanson said. "It seems harmless but there are potentially life-threatening complications."

Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), said parents should educate themselves on potential side effects of both the chickenpox vaccine and the virus and make their own informed decision on what is best for their child.

"We do not advise people what to do," Fisher said. "We empower them with information and encourage people to talk with one or more health care professionals that they trust before making a decision."

When the chickenpox vaccine became available in 1995, NVIC advocated that the vaccine should not be mandated and instead parents should be able to make their own informed decision.

But Swanson said children infected with chickenpox can put other people around them in danger because chickenpox is so contagious. According to the CHOP Vaccine Education Center, if 100 people are exposed to one person with chickenpox for a couple hours approximately 85 of them will contract the virus.

Swanson said children with chickenpox tend to be contagious days before they experience any symptoms, making them more likely to spread the virus before they know they have it.

Children and adults who are immune-suppressed are more likely to contract the virus and more likely to experience serious complications, Swanson said.

She adds that pregnant women who get chickenpox can pass on risks to their unborn child; and one out of every 50 women who gets the virus during pregnancy will have a child with a birth defect.

Fisher recalled that the chickenpox vaccine was first administered in the United States to children with leukemia, and said the vaccine could offer protection to immune-suppressed people if they are exposed to a child infected with the virus.

Nonetheless, Swanson recommends all parents consider vaccinating their child for the chickenpox. After two doses of the shot, she said 99 percent of patients become immune to the virus. Although Swanson said some children can get chickenpox once vaccinated, they typically only have a few pox and do not develop severe side effects.

"The side effects of the vaccine are far less serious than the effects of the virus," Swanson said.

Vaccinated children are also less likely to develop shingles - a re-awakening of the chickenpox infection that results in painful blisters - later in life, Swanson said.

Swanson says teens and adults who were not vaccinated as a child and have never had chickenpox can get the vaccine as well.

Swanson wrote about chickenpox parties on her blog "Seattle Mama Doc."

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