Familiarity breeds contempt. This is true for people and, history suggests, for diseases. Where parents once feared chickenpox and guarded against it, parents aligned with the fringe anti-vax movement now attend chickenpox parties in order to ensure their kids are infected with the varicella-zoster virus. Unfortunately, though the number of deaths and serious injuries caused by chickenpox has decreased sharply since the introduction of an effective vaccine, chickenpox remains a potentially fatal disease that parents need to treat with respect. Will most infected kids recover quickly? Absolutely. But, let’s be clear, kids can absolutely die of chickenpox, which is a serious disease.
“Before there was a chicken pox vaccine, which was introduced in 1995, every year in this country there would be a few million cases in children under 15,” explains Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “There would be 10,000 hospitalizations and roughly 100 deaths. Of those 100 deaths, 70 would occur in perfectly healthy children.”
Those numbers have plummeted since the development and broad deployment of the vaccine. But access to a vaccine hasn’t fundamentally changed the disease itself, which is no less deadly and no less likely to smooth the way for opportunistic bacterial infections that take root in open sores, notably, staphylococcus and streptococcus.
“These cause something called necrotizing fasciitis, which is a severe infection that can cause loss of limbs,” Offit explains. “Chickenpox can also cause pneumonia which can be fatal. The virus can also infect the brain.”
And living in a first world country with good medical care isn’t the cure-all the anti-vax community might like to believe. The United States was a first world country when chickenpox deaths were relatively common in the 1990s and there have not been major medical breakthroughs since that time. To the contrary, some of the bacteria responsible for the chickenpox deaths now have antibiotic-resistant forms that can cause even greater complications.
But beyond the fact that intentionally giving a child chicken pox places them at unnecessary risk for extreme complications, the disease is extraordinarily unpleasant, leaving sufferers incredibly uncomfortable. Symptoms can include fever resulting in body aches and pains, tiredness, headache, loss of appetite and a full body rash that can spread to sensitive areas like the genitals and the inside of the mouth. Children who have chickenpox should stay out of school for up to 5 days. The disease may be relatively common, but it should be taken seriously. And any parent who voluntarily exposes a child to the disease is attempting to not only hurt that child but put them at risk.
“People say, ‘I had chickenpox and I’m fine,’” Offit remarks. “That’s true because they are still alive. The hundred people who used to die of chickenpox are not around to tell their story.”