Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin made headlines recently when he admitted to purposefully exposing his nine children to chickenpox rather than getting them the widely available chickenpox vaccine.
The vaccine, which is offered in two sequenced doses either by itself or part of the MMRV (measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella) vaccine, was first licensed for use in the United States in 1995.
Currently, 49 out of 50 states as well as Washington, D.C., require that children either be vaccinated or demonstrate immunity before starting daycare. All 50 states require the vaccine before starting school, according to the nonprofit group Immunization Action Coalition.
So, why would you purposefully get your kids sick with an illness that’s entirely preventable?
“Chickenpox parties,” where parents intentionally exposed their children to the varicella virus in order to produce immunity, were common before the introduction of the varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, according to M. Kari Nixon, PhD, author of the upcoming book “Kept From All Contagion: Germ Theory, Disease, and the Dilemma of Human Contact in Late Nineteenth-Century Literature.”
The thinking was that by purposefully exposing children to the disease, they’d develop immunity and be prevented from more uncomfortable and disruptive infection later as teens or adults.
“It was a type of social vaccination,” Dr. S. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Healthline.
That might have made some sense at the time, prior to the introduction of the vaccine, when 4 million children per year got varicella, according to the
Since then, however, the vaccine has prevented 3.5 million cases of chickenpox and more than 100 deaths annually.
The Kentucky governor said he wasn’t in favor of government-mandated vaccination for the disease.
“To my knowledge, chickenpox parties fell out of favor in the late 1990s, early 2000s,” Nixon told Healthline. “My guess would be that they’ve made a comeback now with the anti-vaccination movement.”
A possible resurgence of these pox parties is worrisome, since the chickenpox vaccine demonstrably saves lives.
“[Intentionally exposing children] is a terrible idea,” Dr. Gina Posner, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California, told Healthline. “Every single illness that we have a vaccine for can kill us or cause long-term health consequences. That is precisely why the vaccine was invented.”
Prior to introduction of the varicella vaccine, between 10,500 and 13,000 people were hospitalized annually with chickenpox, according to CDC data.
Moreover, cases of chickenpox declined 98 percent between 1995 and 2010.
Complications from chickenpox exposure are especially dangerous — and likely — for children under 1 year old, people older than 15 years, and immunocompromised persons, according to the CDC’s
One reason chickenpox parties persist is the erroneous belief that building up immunity from exposure to the disease in one’s natural environment is superior to receiving a vaccine, Dr. Michael Grosso, chief medical officer and a pediatrician at Huntington Hospital in New York, told Healthline.
Environmental exposure is more “natural” than receiving a vaccine, he said, but that doesn’t make it better.
Despite what anti-vaccination proponents often believe, Grosso said vaccines don’t “overload” the immune system, which is busy with thousands of antigens in addition to the few introduced with vaccines.
“Health outcomes of the type these individuals fear have never been documented,” he said.
Many of the doctors Healthline interviewed acknowledged that skipping the chickenpox vaccine wasn’t as dangerous as skipping vaccinations for some other vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and pertussis.
However, they said there’s still more danger from getting the disease than receiving the vaccine.
After all, the “natural immunity” route means intentionally making your child sick. A vaccine does not.
“Every parent who knowingly exposes his/her child is taking a chance, spinning, as it were, a statistical roulette wheel,” Grosso said.
He noted that complications of chickenpox include pneumonia, hepatitis, brain disorders including encephalitis, Reye’s syndrome, and acute cerebellar ataxia.
Complications aside, chickenpox simply isn’t a pleasant experience for your children, Ganjian says.
“Kids who do not develop the complications often have to deal with itching, difficulty sleeping, fevers, scarring, and missing school for 10 days or so,” he said. “The one-day vaccine prevents these complications and symptoms.”
“Why have your child suffer and put them at risk for developing complications when there is an easy, research-proven solution that is much safer?” Ganjian said.