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Minnesota Medical Association issues advisory on chickenpox parties

WILLMAR -- 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 by getting the disease.

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 a statement 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.

Parents who purposely try to infect their child rather than vaccinate can be "playing with fire," she said. "If you're introducing wild disease into a vulnerable population, you could see a huge outbreak."

Although chickenpox is a mild illness for many children, some 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.

Chickenpox also can be spread to adults who may not have been previously exposed. Among pregnant women infected with chickenpox near the time of delivery, about three in 10 of those pregnancies will end in the death of the baby.

"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."

There's no way to predict which children exposed to chickenpox will become seriously sick and which ones won't, she said. "You have to function under the premise that it could be your child."

According to immunization registry statistics from January of this year, 84 percent of children in Kandiyohi County were up to date with the varicella vaccine at the age of 2, said Ann Stehn, director of Kandiyohi County Public Health. For southwestern Minnesota, it was 79.6 percent, she said.

Although vaccination has greatly reduced the incidence of many once-common childhood diseases, it also has resulted in a generation of adults who've grown up without seeing measles or chickenpox and may not understand the risk, Stehn said.

Many viruses, including chickenpox, are "still out there," she said. "People think of it as mild but it really can be very serious. That's the reason for this emphasis on the vaccine."

DeBruycker said she wasn't surprised that the Minnesota Medical Association has taken a stance on the issue. "There's a growing concern about the consequences of vaccine refusal," she said. "It's becoming an ethical debate."

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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