Doctors Wary of Dangerous Pox Parties

To avoid another vaccination, some parents are turning to chickenpox parties.

ByABC News
January 30, 2009, 4:06 PM

Feb. 2, 2009 — -- It's the kind of party any child would want to attend, equipped with the coolest toys, the latest movies and even a few lollipops.

But there's one thing, or rather one very itchy child, that makes these toddler gatherings different from others.

These parties, known as chickenpox parties, are organized by parents who want their children to catch the virus naturally rather than getting vaccinated.

Carrie, a mother from Atlanta, Ga., who asked that her last name not be used for privacy reasons, is one of those parents.

"My 7-year-old daughter has been to six of these parties," said Carrie, who also runs an online forum that helps parents organize and find parties in their neighborhoods. "Unfortunately, we have not caught the pox yet, but I'm keeping my eye out for more parties."

Carrie described these parties as "no different than a typical playdate." She said some parents might have the kids share a snack or a cup that could encourage the spreading of the highly contagious virus that has symptoms including a red rash, blisters, fever and headache.

Because the chickenpox vaccine is often given to children twice -- the child gets his or her first vaccine around 15 months and then a booster shot between the ages 3 and 4 -- Carrie said she became skeptical of its effectiveness and began to worry that if the vaccine didn't work her daughter would get chickenpox as an adult, when the symptoms are much worse.

"When I found out that children require booster shots, what that said to me was that there is no prolonged effect and that the vaccine doesn't work in the long term," Carrie said. "If it did, there would be no need for multiple shots.

"In my mind, that puts children at greater risk because they get vaccinated when they're young and if, for some reason, they don't get the booster shot or the booster shot isn't effective, the virus will be significantly more dangerous as they get older," she said.

"I'd rather my daughter get it naturally when she's younger than when she's older," Carrie said. "There's less risk when she's younger and she'll recover faster and easier."

The chickenpox vaccine, varicella, was first approved for use in the United States in 1995 and is now required in every state before a child can enter day care or school. Exceptions, including proof that the child has contracted the virus on his or her own, as well as parents who refrain from getting their children vaccinated because of religious reasons, vary from state to state.

Carrie said that her beliefs regarding vaccines and their possible link to autism, as well the instances she has seen when children who, despite getting vaccinated, still end up with the virus, have all played roles in her decision to hold off on vaccinating her daughter.

But while Carrie argues that she is doing what is best for her daughter, medical professionals argue otherwise, telling that they're growing increasingly concerned about these chickenpox parties, which one pediatrician likened to a "game of Russian roulette."