Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children’s Hospital. Along with her blogs here on Thriving, you can find her at the Huffington Post and Boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @drClaire.
Avoiding the chickenpox vaccine has been in the news recently, with the story of a company offering lollipops licked by kids with chickenpox as a way to give your child the illness. Some parents, apparently, would rather use those lollipops, or take their child to a chickenpox party to play with infected kids, than give their child the vaccine.
It got me thinking about my mother and her quest to give me chickenpox when I was a child. She would have drawn the line at the lollipops (which is a ludicrous idea—not only is it incredibly unlikely to work, but who knows what other germs were in that kid’s mouth), but she would have taken me to the parties in a heartbeat. She did her own version: she took me to play with neighborhood kids when they got chickenpox.
My mother wasn’t afraid of vaccines. If there had been a vaccine for chickenpox she would have been first in line with me. My mother was afraid of chickenpox. She wanted me to get it when I was young; her father, a surgeon, told her that chickenpox was more dangerous in adults. And she really didn’t want me to get it when I was pregnant; she was exposed to German measles (rubella) when she was pregnant with me, and I was born with a heart defect that needed surgery.
It didn’t work. Despite her efforts and many other exposures (including my sister and my med school roommate), I didn’t get chickenpox until I was 28 years old and six months pregnant.
Luckily, my son and I were fine. But it was pure luck, because chickenpox during pregnancy can be very dangerous.
This is what gets lost, I think, in the worry and furor about vaccines. People get so caught up thinking about the vaccines that they forget to think about the illnesses the vaccines prevent.
The chickenpox vaccine wasn’t routinely given when my two oldest children (now 20 and 19) were little, and they both got chickenpox—one after the other. They were absolutely miserable, huddled under blankets with fever, covered in itchy blisters. They both had scars from the chickenpox, but luckily those faded after a year or two—for many children, the scars stay forever. And they were lucky that they didn’t have complications.
People get so caught up thinking about the vaccines that they forget to think about the illnesses the vaccines prevent.
But you can’t rely on luck. By definition, it doesn’t always work in your favor.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 10 people who get chickenpox get a complication serious enough to visit a healthcare provider. Some of those complications can be life-threatening; before we started vaccinating for chickenpox, every year more than 10,000 people were hospitalized with complications, and 100-150 of them died.
Compare this to the risks of the vaccine: 2 out of 10 people will get redness or soreness at the injection site, and less than 1 out of 10 will get a fever or a rash that looks like chickenpox within a month. More serious events, like seizures or pneumonia or even death happen after vaccination in about 2 out of every 100,000 people—but it’s hard to know for sure that the vaccine caused all of these events. It’s likely that some of them had nothing to do with the vaccine.
I don’t know. When I look at these numbers, it seems like luck is far more likely to work in our favor with the vaccine than without it.
It’s the same for so many other vaccine-preventable diseases. Take measles, which has been resurfacing recently. The chance of dying from measles? One in a thousand. The chance of a serious reaction to the vaccine? One in a million. As for autism, while we still don’t know what causes it, there’s abundant evidence to show that vaccines aren’t the culprit.
There isn’t any medical treatment that has zero risk, and vaccines are no exception. But it’s really important, when making decisions about vaccines, to add the risks of the illness to that decision. Parents should learn everything they can about both vaccines and the illnesses they prevent; the CDC’s vaccination website is a great place to start.
A child’s health is too important to leave up to luck.