Are 'Chickenpox Parties' Safe? What to Know, According to PEOPLE's Health Squad Pediatrician
“Chickenpox parties” — a.k.a., a gathering held in an attempt to get many children to contract the illness at the same time, to get it over with — are still all the rage among many parents. But are they safe?
According to PEOPLE’s Health Squad Pediatrician, Dr. Elizabeth Murray, “There is no way to know if your child will get a mild case of chickenpox, flu, measles or any other vaccine-preventable disease. So why take the risk?”
“At best, even if they do get a milder version, they’ll be home sick for days, which means suffering that could’ve been prevented plus missed work for parents and risk of exposure to those who can’t handle the germs so well,” she says.
The chickenpox, caused by the the varicella-zoster virus, are an itchy, blister-like rash. Other symptoms include tiredness and fever. The pox usually appear first on the stomach, back and face and then may spread over the entire body. It’s especially serious in babies and people with weakened immune systems.
According to the CDC, the best way to prevent a chickenpox episode is to get the vaccine — which has been incredibly effective, as some 90 percent of children used to contract the disease. Beforehand, about 4 million cases of the virus would appear annually in the U.S., more than 10,000 of whom would be hospitalized and between 100 and 150 of whom would die.
“Vaccines are a victim of their own success,” Dr. Murray tells PEOPLE. “When we didn’t have a chickenpox vaccine, parents would often decide to try to ‘get it over with,’ thinking that teens and adults often had a worse time with the illness. However, the person who has the best time with the illness is the one who never gets it.”
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Dr. Murray points out that the hubbub surrounding potential negative side effects of vaccines has been elevated, thanks to social media, and that the number successful vaccinations far exceeds this statistic.
“We would crash all the social-media platforms if parents made a post every time a child received their vaccinations without a problem because millions of vaccinations are provided without difficulty to U.S. children every year,” she explains.
The children’s health expert also cites a CDC fact sheet that reports 155 million flu vaccines were distributed throughout the U.S. last year alone.
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In November, a school in Asheville, North Carolina, was inundated with dozens of cases of the chickenpox following high rates of parents refusing to vaccinate their children, claiming religious exemption, according to multiple outlets.
At the beginning of that month, more than 28 children had been infected at Asheville Waldorf School and by Nov. 16, that number had grown to 36, The Washington Post reported. It was the worst outbreak in the state since the vaccine against chickenpox became available 20 years ago.
In the wake of the event, the school instituted serious restrictions to prevent more chickenpox cases, according to CNN. For example, anyone who has the disease must stay home, and classmates of kids found to be contagious have to stay home for 21 days. Parents must provide proof of immunity through blood work or a doctor’s statement to get around these rules.
“As a pediatric emergency medicine physician, I’ve cared for children with these diseases. I’ve put tubes down their windpipes so they can breathe,” she recalls. “I’ve done spinal taps to see if the infection has spread to their brain. I’ve heard their parents say, ‘We didn’t think it would be so bad.’ “