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Parents turning to 'pox parties' to avoid chicken pox vaccinations

Jennifer Derrick shows her younger daughter Karina, 2, how her sister Ruby, 5, puts together Jenga blocks to build a tall tower during a recent playtime. Derrick's children came down with chicken pox about 18 months ago after she brought them to a neighbor's to intentionally expose them to the virus by drinking from the same glass of orange juice. Bob King / Forum

DULUTH, Minn. - Leah Schroeder's youngest child, Fynn, had the best breakfast of his 14 months one morning just before Thanksgiving.

"I had my little guy suck on a sucker, which he thought was the coolest thing that had ever happened," the 29-year-old mother of three said.

Schroeder was hosting a "pox party" in her Harbor Highlands home. Another mom stopped by, bringing her young child. The hope was that the other child would catch chicken pox from Fynn, who was in the midst of the itchy illness. Although chicken pox is highly contagious and easily transmitted through the air, the children shared a sucker to heighten the probability.

Schroeder is part of a loose network of parents in the Twin Ports who choose what they call "natural vaccination." Rejecting the chicken pox vaccine as unnecessary and not always effective, they look for opportunities to expose their children to other children with the disease.

It's not a new idea. A "Chicken Pox Party" page on Facebook has people looking for pox parties in south-central Alaska, northeastern Pennsylvania and south Florida, among other places.

After a child is infected, the chicken pox rash will occur in 10 to 21 days, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The average child develops 250 to 500 small blisters over red spots on the skin. The blisters usually are preceded by fever, headache and stomachache. The patient remains contagious until the blisters have crusted over.

It's over in a few days and almost never a serious illness in young children, pox party proponents say. They are allowing their children to get through it early in exchange for lifelong immunity from a disease that can have more serious consequences in later years.

Participants are running against the grain of conventional medical thinking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends two doses of chicken pox vaccine, at least three months apart, starting after children reach their first birthday.

Dr. Linda Van Etta, infectious disease specialist for St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth, is pro-vaccination.

"I think it'd be much safer for them to have the vaccine than to acquire natural chicken pox," Van Etta said.

Since the vaccine was licensed in the United States in 1995, there has been a 70 to 85 percent decrease in naturally occurring chicken pox, Van Etta said. It's true that 4 to 5 percent of those who are vaccinated will "actually get a few lesions from the vaccine," she said. But it's "very mild compared to regular chicken pox."

And although it's true that chicken pox isn't serious in most cases, "we still have about 500 deaths or complications a year," Van Etta said. "So it's not completely benign."

'Leery of vaccines'

But there's a strong anti-vaccine sentiment in Minnesota. An Associated Press analysis published last week showed that 6.5 percent of the state's children don't have all of the recommended vaccinations - the third-highest percentage in the country.

Some parents think vaccinations are oversold. Sheri Carlson of Babbitt is among those who follow an alternative vaccination schedule suggested by Dr. Robert Sears of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., in "The Vaccine Book." It doesn't mean outright opposition to vaccinations, Carlson said. But the people at the clinic where she and her husband, Mark, take their 9-month-old daughter, Isla, "know that we're very leery of vaccines. We're picking and choosing and doing the best we can."

She said it's unlikely Isla will get the chicken pox vaccine when she reaches her first birthday. That's ironic, Carlson pointed out, because her father worked for Merck, which makes the vaccine.

"When she's older, we may think of exposing her to it," Carlson said.

Jennifer Derrick got the word out among friends that she was interested in having her three children exposed after the youngest turned 1. None of the Central Hillside woman's children has had any vaccinations, although she's strongly considering two of them.

But when it came to the chicken pox vaccine, "I would much rather do it the natural way," Derrick said.

She did want her children to have that natural immunity early in life, because "it's bad if you get it when you're older," Derrick said.

Sharing orange juice

Derrick thinks it was about a year and a half ago when a neighbor called and said she had a child with chicken pox. "I don't know if you would call what I went to a pox party," Derrick said. "She called me and said, 'My daughter has chicken pox. Do you want to come and expose all your kids to my kids?' "

She did, and the children drank from the same glass of orange juice. Her children, Sadie, now 8; Ruby, 5; and Karina, 2, all came down with chicken pox two weeks apart, from oldest to youngest.

Sadie had the worst case, Derrick said, but all got through it with no complications. "I don't regret it," Derrick said. "It wasn't a big deal."

Van Etta said it's usually the other way around: The first child in a family to get chicken pox gets the mildest case. That's what happened with Schroeder's children. Greyson, 4, got it first, about a month ago, and it was a relatively mild case. Fynn, the youngest, woke up with it two days before Thanksgiving. Her daughter, Tuesday, 2, came down with chicken pox soon after Thanksgiving and had the worst case of the three.

Although she's a proponent of natural vaccination, Schroeder doesn't like to see her children sick.

"I feel sorry for him," she said during the height of Fynn's illness. "I feel bad that they aren't feeling well. (But) I would rather they had it when they're 3 or 4, or 14 months. One of my sisters got it when she was 18, and she was very ill."

But as it happens, Schroeder didn't have her children exposed on purpose.

"I have no idea where Greyson got it from," she said. "Total fluke."

Once the telltale spots showed up, she said, "I put a feeler out there: 'If you'd like to be exposed, feel free.' "

Doctor's concerns

Schroeder only got the one response, although she heard from other parents. For some, work or holiday conflicts made it a bad time for their children to get sick. And there were several pregnant mothers who knew they shouldn't be exposed. If a woman comes down with chicken pox within five days before she delivers or within 24 hours after, the complications for the baby can often prove fatal, Van Etta said.

One of Van Etta's primary objections to pox parties is the possibility of unintentional exposures. The child will be contagious before blisters show up, she said. What if, during that time, he is in contact with a pregnant woman, or another child who could not be vaccinated for chicken pox because she was HIV positive or had childhood leukemia?

"If you have this child who's now just been to a chicken pox party, shouldn't that child stay home for the next 20 days?" Van Etta said.

Derrick said she honestly doesn't remember if she quarantined her children before they actually showed signs of having chicken pox.

"It is a fair point to make," she said. "I understand that perspective."

Schroeder and Derrick said their pediatricians give them the information they need without trying to talk them out of their choices. Friends and family are generally supportive.

Schroeder's parents were visiting when she had her pre-Thanksgiving pox party. "My dad looked at me a little funny when I said I had a woman coming over to expose her child," Schroeder acknowledged.

Derrick said she's not trying to convince other parents to make the same decisions. "I have no problem with people's choices," she said.

The anti-vaccine movement comes from a new generation of parents who have no memory of what life was like before vaccinations, Van Etta said.

"Vaccines are kind of the victim of their own success," she said. "We don't see children dying of diphtheria; we don't see children dying of tetanus in this country."

And concerns about vaccines are overstated, Van Etta argued.

"Are there side effects to vaccines? Absolutely," she said. "You can get a sore arm. You can get a low-grade fever ... but all of those side effects are very mild and very infrequent compared to coming down with the natural disease."

John Lundy writes for the Duluth News Tribune