Morning Rounds: Are chicken pox parties safe?

NORFOLK, Va. - The governor of Kentucky stirred up controversy this year when he said he deliberately exposed his children to other kids with chicken pox instead of getting them vaccinated.

"'Chicken pox parties' are not without harm," said News 3 medical expert Dr. Ryan Light. "The virus initially causes a rash of 250 to 500 itchy blisters on the chest, back, and face. Fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, and headache all occur. Complications can include bacterial super-infections of the skin, pneumonia, and infection of the central nervous system."

Dr. Light said "natural immunity" technically works, but there are many risks.

"Natural immunity does provide immunity to chicken pox," he explained. "The immune system response is the same for vaccination and exposure. Having the chickenpox or receiving two dose of the vaccine both provide lifelong immunity."

Dr. Light said chicken pox was a very common viral infection prior to the development of a vaccine.  He said approximately four million people were infected with chicken pox annually, and around 10,500 to 13,000 required hospitalization.  100 to 150 people died every year.

"The CDC recommends that children have the first vaccine dose between 12 and 15, and the second dose between the ages of 4 to 6 years," Dr. Light explained. "The vaccination is approximately 90 percent effective at preventing chicken pox. A very small number can still be infected after receiving the vaccine, but the illness is usually milder, with fewer or no blisters and a mild fever."

Dr. Light added, "The chicken pox virus can lay dormant in the nerves system and cause shingles later in life. Research shows that individuals vaccinated with chicken pox have a lower risk of developing shingles versus those who had a natural infection. Even with the lower risk, it is still recommended to receive the shingles vaccination at age 50."

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