Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Inside New York Chicken Pox Parties

A growing number of New York parents are scheduling chicken pox playdates where kids share lollipops and trade germy pajamas to spread the disease and avoid vaccinations. But is it an ill-advised idea?

I t's 2 p.m. on a Saturday and Angie Smith*, a 36-year-old graphic designer, is sitting at a Princeton, N.J., kitchen table with four other parents, eating tea sandwiches and discussing the difficulty of getting their children into competitive kindergartens. Meanwhile, in the living room, six kids huddle on the couch, watching Finding Nemo. Samantha*, Angie's 3-year-old daughter, is still wearing a frilly pink dress from an earlier game of dress-up and laughing with her pal, John, 4. Their parents pass around Blow Pops and encourage the kids to share them. Indeed, this is not a normal playdate—John has a fever and his face is a constellation of red dots smothered in calamine lotion. Welcome to a chicken pox party.

While most parents go to great lengths to keep their children healthy, Angie and the other parents have brought their kids here specifically to catch chicken pox. Since 1999, kindergartners entering school in New York state must have had either the virus or the varicella vaccine, which protects against both chicken pox and shingles. But with recent public controversy concerning a possible link between vaccines and autism, some parents are turning to pox parties to protect their kids—by making them sick. "Measles, mumps, whooping cough…I'm worried about those diseases, so my daughter has had those vaccines. Chicken pox is a joke," says Angie of why she refuses to get Samantha vaccinated.

But pediatricians aren't laughing. "Chicken pox parties are a terrible mistake," says Dr. Anne Gershon, professor of pediatrics at Columbia University and president of the Infectious Disease Society of America. "Imagine how you would feel if you took your kid to one and they came down with encephalitis or group A strep. Most of the time chicken pox is a mild disease, but you can die from the complications."

Angie, who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, has heard the warnings, but says she's not concerned. "Nearly everybody my age got chicken pox, and we're all just fine," she reasons. "No one is exactly sure how long the vaccine lasts or how effective it is. I would much rather have my daughter catch it naturally and have the lifelong immunity you get from fighting it off."

To that end, Angie told her friends and family that if they heard of anyone with spotted kids, they should let her know immediately. So she was delighted four months ago when a cousin called to say her son had the pox and they would be throwing a party the next day. The "celebration" was more low-key than lavish. While the adults chatted over jazz, the kids built a fort, watched movies and played Wii games. "John did everything the other kids were doing, only with pink spots all over him. I thought he would be grumpy because he was sick, but he seemed happy to have the distraction," Angie says. In addition to the lollipops she brought, other parents switched around the kids' cups to make sure they were sharing germs. By 7 p.m., Angie was on her way back to Brooklyn, hopeful that Samantha picked up the pox.

Penelope* and her husband, organic farmers who live an hour outside the city in Cold Spring, N.Y., are also desperately hoping that their 2-year-old daughter will catch chicken pox. Penelope has chosen to vaccinate her child against other deadly diseases, but not the pox. "Why risk it?" she asks. "Our pediatrician looked me straight in the eye and said, 'The only reason the chicken pox vaccine is mandatory is to keep parents at work.' Chicken pox isn't polio, whooping cough or tetanus. At a young age, it's relatively harmless."

A few weeks ago, she posted an ad on Craigslist. "Got chicken pox?" it read. "If you know anyone who [does], please contact me." While Craigslist didn't produce a pox party, Penelope hit the jackpot on the local message board of The parents hosting the bash had three children—ages 3, 9 and 12—who had recently come down with the illness. "I called my pediatrician and got one of the nurses on the phone. I asked her, 'Do you think I'm nuts?' And she said, 'Absolutely not.' "

So Penelope RSVPed yes. "I drove three hours for it," she says. When she got to the strangers' home, "on my way in, there were three kids leaving—the parents joked that I was the second shift," Penelope says. "The mother gave me a hug. Even though she had three sick kids in her house, she was happy to welcome strangers."

More kids stopped by throughout the afternoon to play and rub elbows with the sick celebrants. The younger kids passed the time chasing each other, playing make-believe games about forest animals and gnomes and watching Snow White, while the older kids kept busy reading books, playing video games and practicing the guitar. "The 12-year-old son was joking about how, normally, his mother tells him to cover his mouth," Penelope says. "Now all of a sudden, his mom's trying to spread his germs. He was enjoying pointing out the hypocrisy of it all." On her way out several hours later, she had an idea. "I have a friend who couldn't find a pox party, so a mother in California overnighted her son's pajamas to her. Her kid slept in them and got chicken pox," Penelope says. "So I asked, 'Do you mind if I borrow some [dirty clothes]?' The mom gave me a pair of just-worn pajamas. My daughter slept in them that night and then I mailed them back." Alas, Dr. Gershon says this plan isn't likely to work: "Chicken pox does not spread by clothing. It requires being in direct contact with a person with active chicken pox or shingles." And, indeed, after all the trouble, Penelope's daughter remains pox-free, though she plans to try again.

For other parents dedicated to avoiding the vaccine, the issue of whether to get these injections—or any—is hugely polarizing. "People feel judged when you make a decision different than theirs," says Penelope, who has gotten flack from her family about her choice not to give her daughter the varicella vaccine. "Most parents just follow the recommended vaccine schedule." In the last two decades, rising rates of autism have been loosely linked to vaccines and over the past few years, more and more parents have turned into anti-vaccine public crusaders. Boldfacers like Robert Kennedy Jr. and actress Jenny McCarthy (whose son, Evan, 6, was diagnosed with autism) warn against possible dangers of vaccinations, although the mainstream medical community insists there is no link to autism. In July, actress Amanda Peet (who is the spokesperson for a pro-vaccine group called Every Child by Two, and whose daughter, Frances, turns 2 next month) told Cookie magazine, "Parents who don't vaccinate their children are parasites." A full-out media war ensued, with Jenny responding that she was "proud to be a parasite." (Amanda later apologized for her comments.)

The debate certainly isn't limited to Hollywood. Upstater Ingrid Johanns, 34, is the former CEO of Affinity Neighborhoods, a real estate investment company. After extensive research, she has decided not to give her  ½-year-old son any vaccines. She, like a number of parents, is convinced there must be a link between vaccines and autism and has shared this belief on an NYC Craigslist forum.

"In the past, we only gave kids a few shots [for deadly diseases like mumps and measles]. Now [doctors] recommend so many. Most children's bodies can handle that much toxicity, but for others, it does damage—possibly permanent damage," Ingrid explains. (Although the main worry among parents like Ingrid is autism, critics have blamed vaccines for everything from ADHD to asthma.) "I would rather take the risk of my child contracting measles than autism. The fact that chicken pox has been added to the list of recommended vaccines required truly astounds me."

Dr. Gershon assures parents that there has been no credible research linking autism to vaccinations. "But it's very hard to prove that something doesn't happen, so that's why it has continued to be questioned," she says. Although not even all doctors agree on the chicken pox vaccine, she adds that the varicella vaccine is one of the safest available. And it has a big advantage: While 30 percent of people who get pox naturally have the virus reactivated as shingles, the varicella vaccine lessens the risk of that too. Dr. Gershon says that a lot of the doubt over the vaccine comes from the time when kids were required to get just one dose—in about 15 to 20 percent of cases, the vaccine didn't take. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a first dose after 12 months and the second between ages 4 and 6, so "now we give two shots to everybody," she says. "The immunity appears to persist."

But Dr. Lauri Grossman, a professor at the American Medical College of Homeopathy, says the varicella vaccine can be skipped. "For eons, people have had chicken pox and survived. The immune system gets stronger by having had the virus and establishing a response to it," she explains.

It's unlikely that there will ever be complete consensus about whether or not to vaccinate kids for chicken pox. For now, it's up to parents to make their own decision—and most choose to vaccinate. According to the New York Department of Health, compliance rates for vaccinations are 97 percent and exceptions are only made for religious or documented medical reasons.

As for Angie, the graphic designer who brought her daughter to the chicken pox party in New Jersey, she checked Samantha every day for a sign. Finally, after two weeks, she noticed a red dot on Samantha's arm. Within a few days, she had a full-blown case. "It wasn't exactly fun watching her be so uncomfortable," Angie says. "But I just felt hugely relieved we wouldn't have to get the shot."
Of course, she immediately sent an e-mail to friends and family. This time, the pox party was at her place.

*Some names have been changed.


What is wrong with people??? This is a contagious disease with potentially life threatening complications. Just because your little Johnny came out ok from his bout doesn't give you a shred of evidence beyond anecdotal that the "cure" is worse than the disease. Additionally, how selfish. Vaccines exist to protect society from sweeping contagion. If you want to forego this modern necessity, why don't you go off and buy your own island, living segregated and alone. Grrrr. This kneejerk thinking followed by the sheep all jumping on the bandwagon irritates me beyond belief.

Maybe there's more autism now because it is now a pretty good catch all diagnosis, and therefore more kids who didn't fit into the neat little boxes when we were growing up (we all remember the kids off in the corner who weren't quite right)are now autism statistics. I submit there's just more awareness, the numbers really haven't changed.

Then again, I'm no match intellectually to Jenny McCarthy. She's a celebrity.

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