Chickenpox used to be a childhood rite of passage. After kids faced the itchy sores and mild fever, it went away and you wouldn’t have to worry about this nasty virus again.
Since chickenpox symptoms are more intense when the virus is contracted after puberty, many parents decide to expose their children to the disease at an early age. This is where chickenpox parties come in.
To expose their children to the varicella zoster virus (VZV), parents sent their kids to chickenpox parties, where healthy children were invited expressly to be exposed to the virus. Since the disease is highly contagious and easily spread by touching an infected person or breathing in the virus, catching it was no problem.
One mother took her two boys, now both adults, to a chickenpox party because “that’s what everybody did." At the time, they were four and six years old. Both developed mild cases and got over them quickly. “I had it as an adult, and it was so painful," said the mother.
Even years after the varicella vaccine was licensed in 1995, people are still participating in chickenpox parties. It’s not known officially whether the parties are on the rise, but those who study the disease say that, anecdotally, they are hearing about them more.
One mother named Carrie tried to give her girls chickenpox from a lollipop that came from a person with the varicella virus. It didn’t take. So when their neighbor’s three daughters came down with chickenpox, she sent her girls, ages nine and 11, over for an impromptu chickenpox party.
“They did [sic] popsicles, sharing drinks, juice (and we don’t do a lot of juice), toothbrushes — you name it. Everything was a go," said the mother. Typically, chickenpox will appear 10 to 21 days after exposure. A little more than a week later, Carrie’s girls had the symptoms.
“My oldest daughter had it all over her body, and it healed super fast. My younger daughter just had a couple of spots."
There are some complications that can arise when someone is exposed to chickenpox. After recovering from the disease, the virus lies latent in the patient’s body. In some cases, the dormant virus can flare up later in life as shingles. It is believed that the varicella vaccine helps prevent shingles, in addition to chickenpox, but it is too new to say so conclusively.
Carrie and her husband opted out of the varicella vaccine because they felt it was a “young" vaccine, and believed that it was created so that people didn’t have to use as many sick days. Her girls had always been healthy and rarely needed to see a doctor. One of her girls has never been vaccinated and the other has had two series of early childhood vaccines.
“I let them eat dirt, and they are exposed to the outdoors a lot," she says. Still, had her elder daughter not been exposed to chickenpox, she would have chosen to vaccinate her.
It’s important to understand how the varicella vaccine has changed the public health landscape. Before it was created, approximately 4 million people in the U.S. used to get chickenpox each year, of whom about 100 to 150 died. Another 11,000 people were hospitalized with complications, which is close to one in every patient.
In rare cases (0.01–0.03%), chickenpox can cause deadly neurological complications, such as encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), meningitis, keratitis (eye problems), painful sores, and infections all over patients’ bodies, including their mouths. And, as mentioned above, dormant varicella can eventually lead to shingles later in life.
“The issue is people don’t realize that there can be serious disease associated with chickenpox," says Adriana Lopez, an epidemiologist with the herpes virus team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “You don’t know how each kid is going to react to the virus. The possibility for severe disease is there."
The varicella vaccine was first recommended in 1996, and in 2007, experts began recommending boosters. Studies show that the vaccine is highly effective in preventing chickenpox. From 2000 to 2010, there was a 70 percent decline in U.S. varicella cases, which was attributed to the vaccine program.
The more people who are vaccinated, the safer the population is as a whole. For example, for people who cannot get the vaccine themselves, because they are pregnant or have a compromised immune system, being surrounded by people who have had the vaccine means they are less likely to come down with chickenpox.
In general, the vaccine is administered in two doses to children when they are one and five years old. It is a required immunization for attending school, except for those who are conscientious objectors or have medical conditions that prevent them from being vaccinated. According to the CDC last year, more than 93 percent of all kindergartners received the two-dose vaccine that has shown to be 98 percent effective in preventing chickenpox. Very rarely, vaccinated children will get a mild “breakthrough" case of chickenpox.
Even barring complications, a regular case of chickenpox is no party. A person could have as many as 300 itching, oozing blisters, fever, headache, and fatigue for five to ten days. Children should be kept out of school until all blisters have scabbed over to avoid spreading the disease.
The bottom line: “You don’t want to expose your kids to it," says Lopez.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chickenpox (Varicella). Retrieved from The Center for Disease Control
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chickenpox and the Vaccine (Shot) to Prevent It: CDC Vaccines for Parents site. Retreived from The Center for Disease Control
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seither, Ranee, MPH; Masalovich, Svetlana, MS; Knighton, Cynthia L.; Mellerson, Jenelle, MPH; Singleton, James A., PhD; Greby, Stacie M.,DVM. Vaccination Coverage Among Children in Kindergarten — United States, 2013–14 School Year Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) Weekly October 17, 2014 / 63(41); 913-920. Retrieved from The Center for Disease Control
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lopez, Adriana, MHS; Marin, Mona, MD. Strategies for the Control and Investigation of Varicella Outbreaks Manual, 2008 Retreived from The Center for Disease Control
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