Correction to This Article
A Sept. 20 Health section article about parents' exposing their children to chickenpox incorrectly stated that Trish Thackston of Alexandria was among parents who had shunned the chickenpox vaccine. Thackston had both of her children vaccinated; one contracted the virus regardless. Also, a caption to a photo accompanying the story implied that the three children pictured, all members of a playgroup, were the same members of the playgroup deliberately exposed to the virus by their parents. This was not the case.

A Pox on My Child: Cool!

Xavier Scheeler, 15 months, center, and brother Max, 2, back right, with their Alexandria play group. When one group member had chickenpox, it was an occasion for a party.
Xavier Scheeler, 15 months, center, and brother Max, 2, back right, with their Alexandria play group. When one group member had chickenpox, it was an occasion for a party. (By Tetona Dunlap -- The Washington Post)
By Shannon Henry
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 20, 2005

When Trish Thackston's 7-year-old son, Connor, broke out with chickenpox recently, she quickly scheduled play dates with four families over the next four days at their Alexandria house.

The kids made art projects with glue and glitter, worked side by side on dinosaur puzzles and shared spoons, all with the intention of transmitting the illness to the healthy children. Her son, thrilled not to be sequestered from friends as he usually is on sick days, said excitedly one morning: "Who's coming over to catch my chickenpox today?"

Some parents, including Thackston, are shunning the chickenpox vaccine, introduced in 1995 and considered safe and effective by most health authorities, in favor of the old-style method of exposing children to the real thing at an early age. Today's parents may remember their own moms and dads tucking sick siblings in bed with healthy ones and inviting friends over to spread the illness.

Many who choose to expose their children believe that catching the illness at "chickenpox parties" is safer and more effective than using vaccines.

But some doctors and other health experts are warning that the practice is dangerous. They say that chickenpox is an unpredictable disease. A "wild" exposure may not necessarily make for a milder case, or, on the other hand, guarantee the child will catch the virus. They say complications from chickenpox can be life-threatening.

"Chickenpox is not necessarily a benign disease or a childhood rite of passage," said Curtis Allen, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "We don't recommend parents expose their children. The vaccine is best."

Allen points out that before the vaccination was available, there were 11,000 hospitalizations and 100 deaths annually in the United States from chickenpox, also known as varicella. During 2003 and the first half of 2004, the CDC reported eight deaths from varicella, six of whom were children or adolescents. While the vaccine protects 70 percent to 90 percent of those who receive it, he said, those who do contract the disease after vaccination usually get a milder case than what occurs naturally.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children get the vaccine between the ages of 12 months and 18 months. Schools and day-care centers are increasingly adding the shot to their list of requirements for attendance.

'Like Old Days'

Chickenpox is a highly infectious disease that causes tiredness and fever in addition to its blister-like rash. In a mild case, a child may get only a dozen or so lesions, while a full-blown case could sprout several hundred pox. The lesions usually appear first on the face and chest, but can spread over the whole body.

Chickenpox is generally transmitted by direct contact or through the air from coughing or sneezing and lasts about five to 10 days. Treatment usually consists of making the patient more comfortable, often with fever-reducing medicines, topical lotions and soothing baths. About one in 10 children has a complication from the disease, according to the AAP. Complications can include infected skin, dehydration, pneumonia and encephalitis. The CDC recommends keeping children's fingernails short and discouraging scratching to avoid infection.

Darlene White of Bealeton, Va., who successfully exposed all four of her children (even one who had been vaccinated) to chickenpox, said she questioned her decision when her 2½-year-old contracted the illness.

"You could not even see healthy skin between the majority of the pox, and her scalp had them so bad that she looked like she had gone through radiation treatment," said White. However, now that her daughter is healed without a scar, she said she would do it again, because she now believes her family has lifelong immunity -- something experts say does not exist.

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