Parents are reportedly hosting chickenpox parties to deliberately expose their children to the virus. The theory is that attending one will reduce a child’s risk of the child contracting chickenpox as adults – which can be serious, with complications more likely.
But is this actually safe? Helen Bedford, immunisation spokesperson and member of the Health Improvement Committee at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), tells HuffPost UK: “I would not recommend deliberately exposing children to chickenpox or in fact any infectious disease.”
And Dr Kenny Livingstone, a registered GP and chief medical officer for private doctor service ZoomDoc, agrees: “Chickenpox parties aren’t really advisable. The official Public Health England (PHE) advice is to prevent the spread of infection by keeping children off school or nursery until all spots have crusted over – usually about five days.”
Some people think it’s better for their children to catch chickenpox while they are young. Recently, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin admitted to exposing all nine of his children to chickenpox instead of giving them the vaccine.
One mum took to the ChannelMum.com online community to say she wanted her four-year-old to catch it. “I know it’s a serious illness and can have really serious side effects, but I really want him to just catch it, so he is protected, not at risk of catching it when he’s much older, when it can usually do more damage,” she wrote.
Maggie Fisher, registered health visitor for the site, says she exposed her three children to others who had chickenpox so they would catch it. She believes it’s “far better to have it as child than as an adult”, but stresses there is always a risk that some children might get it more severely than others.
Bedford says that, to some extent, it’s true that it’s best for kids to catch it young. However she adds that while it’s usually mild, chickenpox can be “very serious” for young infants and those with immune problems. As with a lot of illnesses, symptoms will vary from child to child. While one might feel mildly irritated by it, others might feel quite distressed and ill – with intensely itchy blisters, a high fever and flu-like symptoms.
The illness can also be dangerous for pregnant women, with the potential to cause complications both for the mum-to-be and her unborn baby. Issues that can arise include pneumonia, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and hepatitis, according to the NHS.
It can cause a variety of issues for the foetus depending on how far along in the pregnancy a woman is. Before 28 weeks, for example, there’s a small risk the baby could develop foetal varicella syndrome (FVS) which can damage its skin, eyes, legs, arms, brain, bladder or bowel.
Between weeks 28 and 36 of pregnancy, the virus stays in the baby’s body but doesn’t cause any symptoms, according to the NHS. However it could activate again in the first few years of the baby’s life, causing shingles. After 36 weeks of pregnancy, there’s a chance the baby could be born with chickenpox.
However experts acknowledge that the chance of pregnant women catching chickenpox is low: three in every 1,000 women (0.3%) catch it during pregnancy.
Children in the UK aren’t routinely given a vaccine against chickenpox, but Dr Livingstone says he has witnessed an increasing number of parents getting their children immunised against chickenpox within the private sector.
“The vaccine is very effective,” he explains, “but requires two vaccines, four weeks apart.” He adds that it’s unlikely to become part of the NHS childhood immunisation schedule.