When I was around five or six years old, I had chickenpox. The rash started right after my older brother’s illness had resolved and he had returned to school. His case was relatively mild, according to Ketyer Family folklore, but mine was much, much worse. (In the days before chickenpox vaccine, this was a typical story. The first child in the family to contract the varicella virus had mild symptoms and any subsequent sibling got it worse.) I apparently missed a week of kindergarten and was miserable the whole time (that’s what I was told), but things resolved as expected and I was done with chickenpox for life… hopefully. (Amidst a nationwide shortage, I’m still waiting to receive my second shingles vaccine.) Most, if not all of the kids in my class and elementary school also had chickenpox growing up. None in my circle of friends had a bad course or died from it. It was just a rite of passage it seemed, for every child of my generation to get chickenpox and miss a week of school (or a family vacation or summer camp or other special occasion).
When I became a pediatrician, there was still no vaccine to prevent chickenpox. As a resident-in-training at Children’s Hospital, I saw many complications that resulted from what most thought was a benign childhood illness. Some were more severe than others: dehydration, pneumonia, severe pain, secondary skin infections causing permanent scarring were mild compared to cerebellar ataxia (loss of balance where affected children can’t even sit up), severe pain symptoms requiring heavy doses of opioid painkillers, and missing limbs in newborns with the very rare congenital varicella syndrome. In children being treated for cancer or on high doses of steroids for asthma and other immune system disorders, chickenpox was a nightmare situation. When I began practicing pediatrics in an office setting, I treated most kids with chickenpox over the phone, mostly advising supportive measures — lots of fluids, calamine lotion, tylenol but NEVER ASPIRIN! (I almost forgot another devastating complication of chickenpox which I saw twice as a medical student and twice as a resident: Reye syndrome, a risk to kids taking aspirin to ease the discomfort and fever that comes with chickenpox or influenza) — and giving reassurance.
Shortly after the licensure of the varicella vaccine in 1995, pediatricians around the nation and around the world started observing fewer cases of chickenpox. Given twice — first at 12 months of age and again at 4 years old — the two dose series of varicella vaccine is nearly 100% protective! It is very possible there are young pediatricians in practice today who have never seen a full-blown case of chickenpox. Jen Juneau remembers how bad this “benign” illness could be:
Beforehand, about 4 million cases of the virus would appear annually in the U.S., more than 10,000 of whom would be hospitalized and between 100 and 150 of whom would die.
Children used to DIE from chickenpox. Hardly anyone does now because the varicella vaccine is so widely accepted by parents who want to spare their child and themselves a week or more of misery in the best case and heartbreak and regret in the worst. Unfortunately, there are parents who subscribe to the “out of sight, out of mind” denial tactic and don’t immunize their children because of the false assumption that “no one gets chickenpox anymore and, besides, it’s not serious.” For them, holding a “chickenpox party” when some poor child in the classroom or community contracts it might sound like a good idea. Juneau found a pediatrician who says it is not:
“Chickenpox parties” — a.k.a., a gathering held in an attempt to get many children to contract the illness at the same time, to get it over with — are still all the rage among many parents. But are they safe?
According to PEOPLE’s Health Squad Pediatrician, Dr. Elizabeth Murray, “There is no way to know if your child will get a mild case of chickenpox, flu, measles or any other vaccine-preventable disease. So why take the risk?”
“At best, even if they do get a milder version, they’ll be home sick for days, which means suffering that could’ve been prevented plus missed work for parents and risk of exposure to those who can’t handle the germs so well,” she says.
With a recent chickenpox outbreak in North Carolina a fresh memory and a measles outbreak in Washington State currently underway, one can excuse Dr. Murray for being a party-pooper:
“Vaccines are a victim of their own success,” Dr. Murray tells PEOPLE. “When we didn’t have a chickenpox vaccine, parents would often decide to try to ‘get it over with,’ thinking that teens and adults often had a worse time with the illness. However, the person who has the best time with the illness is the one who never gets it.”
“As a pediatric emergency medicine physician, I’ve cared for children with these diseases. I’ve put tubes down their windpipes so they can breathe,” she recalls. “I’ve done spinal taps to see if the infection has spread to their brain. I’ve heard their parents say, ‘We didn’t think it would be so bad.'”
Chickenpox isn’t serious until it suddenly is, and it’s not so bad until it’s a child you know and love. Chickenpox vaccine is safe and effective; it’s not one that should be missed.
None of them should be missed.