So, yesterday morning I had to spend an hour in employee health, having my lungs checked out and my blood banked just in case I end up needing to work in a BSL-3 lab sometime in the future (due to a grant we’re pursuing). Stupid me didn’t realize I’d have to wait so long and went there empty-handed, and my choices of reading material consisted of either hunting magazines or a really old People magazine (I swear, this week is a conspiracy to get me to obsess about pop culture). In the midst of all the celeb stories, though, was an article on chickenpox parties. Where people take their kids to get them purposely infected with varicella. Probably would have done my mental state better to just read about Tom Cruise…
Like I said, I should have known this was probably still going on. I remember when I had chicken pox in first grade, and my cousin brought her three kids (who were my age–tangled family tree and long story) over to our house with the purpose of infecting them. It worked, and within a few days there were 6 of us spotted kids. But–this was in 1982, long before the introduction of the varicella vaccine here in the United States. Chickenpox “parties” were deemed a better alternative to potentially encountering the disease as an adult–when the frequency of serious complications is higher. Today, however, that just ain’t so.
I know that many people still view chickenpox as “just a harmless childhood illness.” Sure, for many of us, that’s the case. So far, I’ve escaped with little more than a few scars on my forehead (I admit, I was a scratcher) and the ugliest childhood picture *ever*, since I decided to do some surgery on my bangs while I was pocked–resulting in about quarter-inch long, very crooked bangs. Did I mention I also had giant pink glasses and a few missing teeth at the time as well? Anyhoo, other than that, so far, so good. However, there’s a very real possibility that I could develop shingles later in my life. Additionally, the wild virus just ain’t as benign as we’d like to think. It can cause severe pneumonia or encephalitis. Additionally, I mentioned here that deadly infections with the group A streptococcus are becoming more common. Guess what’s a major risk factor for these infections? Yep–chicken pox. Check out, for example, this manuscript on invasive group A strep disease in Alberta, Canada, which notes that “varicella virus infection preceded invasive GAS disease in 25% of children 8 years of age and under.” It has the potential to be much more than just an inconvenient itch.
What about the vaccine? Though it’s only been on the market in the US for about 10 years, it was initially developed in the 1970s and was used in Japan and Korea since the 1980s. It’s a live attenuated vaccine, so it doesn’t completely eliminate the risk for shingles later in life, but several studies suggest shingles is less common and less severe in those who received the vaccine than those who acquired chickenpox naturally.
What about thimerosal? Even if you were a parent who was worried about the potential connection between thimerosal and autism (one I disagree with, I might add), the chickenpox shot (“Varivax”) doesn’t even contain thimerosal. I just don’t get it.