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Minnesota Medical Association issues advisory against chickenpox parties

The Minnesota Medical Association issued a strongly worded statement this week about "chickenpox parties," or playdates organized by parents to purposely expose their children to chickenpox in hopes of acquiring "natural" immunity.

The so-called chickenpox parties put kids at risk and increase the risk of spreading the disease to other vulnerable people, the MMA said in its statement, which was issued late Thursday.

"There is no controversy about this among pediatricians and other physicians. The vaccine is far safer," said Dr. Linda Van Etta, an infectious disease specialist at St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth.

The MMA's advisory was prompted by a growing number of local and national reports of chickenpox parties being held as an alternative to vaccination. The Duluth News Tribune reported recently on a pox party that took place in northern Minnesota around Thanksgiving.

The practice of holding pox parties has been around since at least the 1980s. But there are signs the trend is gathering steam with the advent of the social media.

"Facebook has become a new way that people try to do that," said Jo DeBruycker, manager of the Health Learning Center at Affiliated Community Medical Centers.

Of even greater concern is a noticeable rise in the number of parents who opt out of some -- or all -- of the recommended vaccinations for their children, including the chickenpox vaccine, she said.

"There's a small but growing number of people who are deciding to skip or delay that vaccine," she said. "When you drop that vaccination rate, you're really putting the whole community at risk."

The belief that natural infection with chickenpox is safer and healthier than the chickenpox vaccine is "not true," DeBruycker said.

Although chickenpox is a mild illness for many children, others can become severely ill and develop complications such as encephalitis or pneumonia, noted Stacey Zondervan, patient services supervisor at Family Practice Medical Center.

Before the chickenpox vaccine was introduced in the mid-1990s, about 100 to 150 children in the U.S. died each year from the disease, which is caused by the varicella virus.

"The pros (of vaccination) are far greater than the cons," Zondervan said. "I truly believe that if you can immunize your child to decrease the likelihood and severity of a disease, it's prudent to do so."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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