Should we avoid exposing our children to chickenpox?

Chickenpox parties. Chickenpox lollipops. A simple Internet search can yield a plethora of information to the vaccine-wary parent. Yet as with all things Internet-related, misinformation abounds. Is exposing an unimmunized child to the varicella virus safe and effective? Should you book your chickenpox party along with your child’s birthday party?

The answer from the medical community is an emphatic NO.

It amazes me that parents would let their children suck on lollipops that have been licked by other children and knowingly give their child an illness. What is even worse is what they may be unintentionally exposing their children to, such as strep infections and even hepatitis.

While your own child may lick a chickenpox-infested lollipop or share a drink with her friend at the chickenpox party and suffer only a few days of fever and rash, the little child with leukemia down the street could die when exposed to your child.

Simply put, there are risks associated with chickenpox, both for your child and others around him. No parent wants to live with the guilt if their child develops serious complications. And while it’s true that most children will only suffer a mild case of fever and an itchy rash, others go on to develop complications such as pneumonia, skin infections, encephalitis, and even death. And to think, the discomfort of even a mild case can be avoided altogether with a simple vaccine. True, the varicella vaccine is a live virus, but the wild type virus is much more likely to make your child sick and cause serious complications than the virus in the vaccine.

The incidence of chickenpox has decreased dramatically since the introduction of the varicella vaccine in 1995. Previously, approximately 4 million people contracted the disease each year according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Up to 150 people a year would die, with the young, elderly, and immunocompromised being most at risk. After the vaccine was introduced, cases of chickenpox have declined by 90 percent, and deaths due to chickenpox have fallen by 96 percent in children.

The varicella vaccine not only protects the person being vaccinated but also those who are unable to be vaccinated due to age or immune problems. So even though the little boy with cancer who lives on your street cannot receive the vaccine, he is protected if all of the other children around him are protected. This is the gist of herd immunity.

So skip the party, lose the lollipops, and instead take your child for a chickenpox vaccine.

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About Dr. Kristie Rivers, Bundoo Pediatrician

Dr. Kristie Rivers is an Attending Physician, Assistant Medical Director of the Pediatric Hospitalist Program, and Director of Pediatric Medical Education at a children’s hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. She cares for hospitalized children and also teaches pediatric residents and medical students.

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