chicken pox party

Pre-schoolers who attended recent parties in Colorado might have left with the worst party favor ever. If all goes according to plan, they’ll get chicken pox — because that’s what their parents were hoping would happen to them all along.

Local news outlets in Colorado reported on Monday that parents are using Facebook groups to organize parties at which their healthy children will play with kids who have chicken pox. These parties, called “pox parties,” were common in the days before the chicken pox vaccine. But they have persisted among anti-vaccination groups throughout the years, despite reports from agencies like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the vaccine saves up to 100 lives per year.

In 2011, Reuters reported that some parents had taken to sending chicken pox-laced lollipops through the mail to one another — even though it’s illegal to send diseases through the mail. Now, it seems that anti-vaxxers in Boulder, Colorado, have returned to the tried-and-true pox party — going to elaborate lengths to ensure that their children contract a case of chicken pox.

For instance, a screenshot from a private pox party Facebook group leaked to 9NEWS in Colorado described a “tenting method” some parents are using to ensure exposure to the virus:

If the kid is ok with small spaces make a comfy blanket fort or cozy closet hideaway. Glow sticks, flashlights and maybe legos or a movie on a tablet can keep everyone occupied. It is best if the sick kid can be in first for about 20 to 30 minutes so that the enclosed space is filled with their exhaled air. Then let the party begin!

Molecular biologist Lindsay Diamond, Ph.D., runs the vaccination advocacy group Community Immunity in Boulder. Speaking to 9NEWS, Diamond noted that these parents are going to these bizarre lengths because they want to expose their children to a “natural” chicken pox virus. They have the impression that this type of exposure would somehow confer greater immunity that the vaccine itself:

“There’s this emphasis on natural immunity being better than vaccine-delivered immunity,” she said. “So, the idea [is] that you would get your child chickenpox and that would give them this sort of life-long immunity. But you can achieve the same thing, or close to, with the vaccine without serious risks.”

It’s likely that some of these parents simply mistrust vaccines, regardless of ample evidence that they’re safe and effective. But the idea that Diamond mentions is that exposing children to a live version of an illness — sometimes called the “wild-type” — may confer better immunity than exposing them to the vaccinated form, which is typically far less potent, according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s (CHOP) Vaccine Education Center.

But the issue here is that in their quest for “natural immunity,” parents are putting their children at far higher risk for other diseases that accompany natural infection, like pneumonia. This may also be dangerous in the long term as well. Because varicella — the virus that causes chickenpox — never really leaves the body, there is a small chance it can reawaken later in life and cause shingles, a condition that shows up as a large, painful rash. If the virus awakens later in life, the wild-type virus is still more potent than the one used in vaccines and can be more dangerous. CHOP puts it this way:

The important question you need to ask yourself: Would you rather have the more destructive, “wild type” virus reawaken later in life, or the weakened virus contained in the vaccine?

Despite the strong evidence supporting the safety and effectiveness of vaccinations — and the fabricated evidence that says they’re unsafe — it seems like there will always be holdouts who insist on constructing disease tents like these, despite the risks they might pose to themselves and their communities.