Parents in several American states have been sending lollipops licked by children who have chicken pox by mail, according to health officials. The scheme is part of an elaborate effort to give children preventable diseases early in life in order to avoid vaccination.
European experts say the practice is dangerous but, so far, has not been seen on this site of the Atlantic. Dr Javier Diez-Domingo, a paediatrician at the Vaccine Institute of Valencia, Spain, said the risks associated with chicken pox and its potential complications are far greater than the rare side effects that may occur with vaccines.
He described the stories from the US as “incredible”, saying deliberately infecting children puts them in unnecessary danger and also poses risks for society at large.
The new development of mail-order disease follows the trend set by ‘pox parties’ where parents who oppose vaccination would gather children together in an effort to share diseases like measles, mumps and chicken pox.
Anti-vaccine groups have harnessed the power of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to find like-minded parents in their locality who either have a child with chicken pox or who are looking to meet up with an infected child.
Facebook has also been used to advertise the pox-by-post service which has seen envelopes containing lollipops, swabs and tissues distributed across the US – for a fee.
Media reports have noted that sending infectious diseases through the postal system is illegal, although those behind the scheme say they send infected material in sealed plastic bags to prevent widespread contamination of postal workers and others.
Watch: CBS News – ‘Chicken pox on demand’
Dr Javier Diez-Domingo, a paediatrician at the Vaccine Institute of Valencia in Spain, said that while ‘Chicken Pox Parties’ had been reported in the UK, he was unaware of European parents sending infected material by post.
“It’s an amazing story. However, the varicella virus which causes chicken pox does not survive on dry surfaces so it is unlikely to infect people handling the mail or the children who receive these packages by post,” he told Vaccines Today.
Dr Diez-Domingo said that while no real risk is posed by the lollipops, the practice shows how distorted some people’s view of disease transmission has become.
“In fact what these parents are doing is trying to mimic what vaccines do. They want to expose their children to the virus so they become immune from an early age. That’s what the vaccine does except the vaccine is attenuated and therefore does not cause the full blown disease.”
He said in rare cases chicken pox parties had caused the deaths of children who had undiagnosed immune-deficiencies. Had they not been deliberately exposed to the virus until later in life their underlying immune problems might have been detected and managed, Dr Diez-Domingo added.
“That’s the extreme case but we also see other severe problems with varicella, such as pneumonia and encephalitis. It is a disease that most frequently is mild but can cause problem. Vaccines can also have adverse events but these are much less frequent than the disease itself.”
He said deciding not to vaccinate children puts the children at high risk of disease and also raises the over risk for wider society. The recent measles outbreaks in Europe are a case in point, Dr Diez-Domingo said.
“Chicken pox parties and people posting lollipops through the post is incredible. It’s a sort of cult against modernity; it’s going against the improvements in medicine and prevention.”