I was reading the news the other day, and came across a story about a woman who was sending chickenpox infected items through the mail. I naturally assumed that this was some sort of joke or lame attempt at bioterrorism, but no. This was simply someone trying to make a profit off of anti-vaccine hysteria. Perhaps you’ve heard about “chickenpox parties” where people bring their children to the home of a someone infected with chickenpox in a deliberate attempt to infect their own child. Now, mind you, there is a perfectly good chickenpox vaccine, but apparently the idea here is that if the child actually suffers through chicken pox, rather than receiving the vaccine, it will make his or her immune system stronger.
While I suppose they have the right to do that, Federal authorities became alarmed after a report on WSMV-TV in Nashville about a woman who was offering to ship items like Q-tips and lollipops that had been licked or spit on by her chickenpox infected children. For this service she was charging $50, payable through PayPal. In a separate report, KPHO-TV in Pheonix found a number of similar ads on a Find A Chickenpox Party Facebook page.
There are a couple of things to consider here. First, chickenpox, caused by the varicella-zoster virus, is usually fairly benign, but not always. According to the Medscape website, in some cases the virus can lead to varicella induced pneumonia or encephalitis. Prior to the introduction of the vaccine, chickenpox caused on average 100 deaths per year.
Second, it’s a waste of money. Chickenpox is highly contagious, but mainly because it is airborne. You catch the disease by breathing in particles from an infected person, not licking a lollipop covered in their saliva. It’s also very unlikely that the virus would survive being shipped through the mail. According to Isaac Thomsen, a specialist in pediatric infectious disease at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, “If there’s a very high load on the virus and shipped very quickly, it’s theoretically possible, but it’s probably not an effective way to transmit it. It typically has to be inhaled.” Thomsen went on, however, to warn that the shipped items could contain more dangerous viruses like hepatitis.
Third, it’s illegal. Jerry Martin, U.S. attorney for the middle District of Tennessee said that it is a federal crime to send diseases or viruses across state lines. It doesn’t matter whether it’s through the U.S. Postal Service or private carriers like FedEx or UPS. The law that bans the shipment of chickenpox is the same one that bans the shipment of things like anthrax and ebola. The Feds are likely to take it very seriously, and it’s punishable by a prison sentence of up to 20 years. That’s a whole different kind of party.
Finally, if you want to give your child a stronger immune system get him or her vaccinated. That’s how vaccines work. A vaccine is a non-infectious fragment of the disease it is intended to prevent. When it is introduced to the body, either orally or through injection, it essentially tricks the body into thinking it has actually been infected with the disease. The immune systems kicks in and the vaccine gives it all the information about the virus it needs to mount an attack. The body then retains the information about the virus the same way it retains the information from an actual infection. That’s why most people never have to worry about getting chickenpox twice. This allows your own immune system to fight off the disease if you ever encounter it again. It does all this without your having to suffer through any actual symptoms or complications. That’s a pretty neat trick, and it’s much less risky than deliberately going into a home full of infected people or licking someone else’s lollipop.