A pox party (also measles party, flu party etc.) is a social activity where children are deliberately exposed to an infectious disease, to promote immunity. Such parties, and similar means of deliberately causing infection, can be seen as an historical, cruder, forerunner to current vaccines, and are today typically organized by anti-vaccinationists on the premise of building the immune systems of their children against diseases such as chickenpox and measles (which can be more dangerous to adults than to children) or flu. Such practices are highly controversial and are discouraged by public health officials in favor of vaccination. In the USA, if the exposure involves the United States Postal Service to swap tainted items, the practice is illegal.
Effectiveness and risk
Parents who expose their children to the virus in this manner may believe that this method is safer and more effective than receiving a vaccination. Similar ideas have been applied to other diseases such as measles. However, pediatricians have warned against holding pox parties, citing dangers arising from possible complications associated with chicken pox, such as encephalitis, chickenpox-associated pneumonia, and invasive group A strep. Although such complications are not common, they can cause brain damage or death. Before the chickenpox vaccine became available there were 100 to 150 deaths from chickenpox among children in the U.S. annually. All of the illnesses the parties are intended to ameliorate, including not only chicken pox, but other diseases such as mumps and hepatitis A, can be life-threatening to children if treated inappropriately. The chickenpox vaccine is recommended by health officials as a safer alternative.
Some parents have attempted to collect infected material, such as saliva, licked lollipops, or other infected items from people who claim to have children infected with chickenpox. The parents use social networking services to make contact with these strangers. The unknown person then mails the potentially infectious matter to the requester, who gives it or feeds it to his or her child in the hope that the child will become ill.
Experts say it is unlikely that these methods will transmit the chickenpox virus effectively or reliably, because the varicella virus cannot survive for very long on the surface of such items. However, it may be a reliable method of transmitting other diseases, including hepatitis B, group A streptococcal infection, and staphylococcal infections—potentially deadly diseases to which the parents never intended to expose their children. Additionally, in the United States, deliberately sending infectious matter through the postal service is illegal.
With the introduction of a smallpox vaccine, inoculations of wild smallpox virus fell into disuse.
In the United States, chickenpox parties were popular before the introduction of the varicella vaccine in 1995. Children were also sometimes intentionally exposed to other common childhood illnesses, such as mumps and measles. Before vaccines became available, parents knew these diseases were almost inevitable. In the case of chickenpox, its connection to shingles was unknown for a long time.
During the 2009 flu pandemic in Canada, doctors noted an increase in what were termed flu parties or flu flings. These gatherings, as with the pox parties, were designed explicitly to allow a parent's children to contract the "swine flu" influenza virus. Researchers such as Dr. Michael Gardam noted that because the pandemic was caused by a flu subtype that most people have had no exposure to, the parents would be just as likely to contract the disease and further its spread. Although these events were heavily discussed in the media, very few were confirmed to have happened.
McNeil Jr, Donald G. (May 6, 2009). "Debating the Wisdom of 'Swine Flu Parties'". New York Times. Retrieved May 7, 2009.
Chickenpox parties, at which children gather so they can all be infected by a child who has the pox, are often held by parents who distrust chickenpox vaccine or want their children to have the stronger immunity that surviving a full-blown infection affords and are willing to take the risk that their child will not get serious complications.
Ghianni, Tim (November 12, 2011). "Swapping chicken pox-infected lollipops illegal". Reuters. Retrieved December 29, 2011.
A federal prosecutor is warning parents against trading chicken pox-laced lollipops by mail in what authorities describe as misguided attempts to expose their children to the virus to build immunity later in life.
- Torgovnick, K. (January 11, 2009). "Inside New York Chicken Pox Parties". Archived from the original on March 30, 2013. Retrieved September 10, 2011.
- Henry, Shannon (September 20, 2005). "A Pox on My Child: Cool!". The Washington Post. pp. HE01.
- Brown, E. (November 4, 2011). "'Pox parties': Coming to a mailbox near you?". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 8, 2011.
- Rubin, Rita (November 2011). "Chickenpox lollipops? Some moms may be sending in mail". MSNBC. Archived from the original on December 6, 2013.
...noting that before the chickenpox vaccine became available, the disease killed 100 to 150 children every year, most of whom were previously healthy.
- DeNoon, Daniel J. (September 29, 2005). "'Pox Parties' Pooh-Poohed". Retrieved October 9, 2011.
- Sanghav, Darshak (2001). A Map of the Child: A Pediatrician's Tour of the Body. Macmillan. p. 184. ISBN 0805075119.
- Donohue, Paul (April 4, 2015). "Chickenpox parties a thing of the past". Sun Journal. Retrieved February 11, 2015.
- Nephin, Dan (October 19, 2001). "Chickenpox parties aim for kids to catch disease, avoid vaccine". The Daily Gazette. The Daily Gazette. AP.
- News staff, CTV (July 3, 2009). "Doctors say 'flu parties' not a good idea". CTV News. Retrieved July 3, 2009.
- Lake, T. (June 2010). "The Golden Boy and the Invisible Army". Atlanta Magazine. Retrieved June 12, 2012.