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Andrew Guarino / Gavel Media

Pox Parties: The Newest Danger to Public Health

As the world enters another year of the pandemic, many long for a return to normalcy. With new COVID-19 variants spreading across the country, however, this goal seems more out of reach than ever. The newest and most contagious variant, Omicron, has rapidly swept the nation and caused almost 900,000 deaths within the past 30 days. In the face of this staggering number, the majority of citizens continue to do their part by getting vaccinated and wearing masks. The federal government has also looked for a long-lasting solution, as the Biden Administration recently reworked their plan for COVID-19 treatment. Besides advocating for booster shots and stronger health protocols, the White House made a half-billion at-home COVID tests available to the public which can be directly ordered to one’s home. Despite these substantial efforts, a rising trend now threatens any possible return to regularity: pox parties. 

In the 1970s to the 1980s, pox parties were commonly used to stop the spread of the ChickenPox virus. Several adults can recall this element of their childhood, when they would unexpectedly be invited to their friend’s house for a gathering, unaware that one of the attendees was recently diagnosed with Chickenpox. The entire group would be exposed in order to gain immunity to the virus. Many reasoned that symptoms would be milder for children, and catching the disease early would represent a lifetime of safety. 

After the development of the Chickenpox vaccine in 1995, pox parties consequently fell out of practice. Doctors even cautioned against this trend, as exposure to the Chickenpox might induce life-threatening conditions, including pneumonia, bleeding problems, and encephalitis.

Dr. Rodney Willoughby, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, provides further practical reasoning on this issue. Aside from the health complications caused by pox parties, Willoughby argues, "If your child can get a vaccine so he'll never get pox and aren't out of school for 10 days, then why do a chickenpox party? You can schedule a shot for one day, instead of dealing with sickness for ten days."

While the medical community agrees on the debunking of this outdated and unsafe practice, some individuals are still planning their neighborhood pox party. In 2019, Kentucky Governor, Matt Bevin, proudly admitted that his children were exposed to Chickenpox. During an interview with a local radio station, he explained, “Every single one of my kids had the chickenpox. They got the chickenpox on purpose because we found a neighbor that had it and I went and made sure every one of my kids was exposed to it, and they got it. They had it as children. They were miserable for a few days, and they all turned out fine.” Governor Bevin symbolizes the current prominence of pox parties, especially for people opposed to vaccinations. 

Now, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, this hazardous trend has fully reemerged with fatal consequences. Similar to the gatherings of the 70s and 80s, individuals are hosting parties to purposely expose and spread the Omicron variant. These events often occur within anti-vaxxer communities or groups that distrust the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine. Searching for alternative cures, these groups hope to gain immunity through this exposure. Parents also seek remedies for their young children, who are unable to get the vaccine until the age of 5. Although many can sympathize with these worries, the consequences of these gatherings certainly outweigh any benefit.  

Criticism towards COVID-19 parties largely stems from the unknown effects of the coronavirus variants. Many believe Omicron has milder symptoms compared to earlier strains of COVID-19. While fatal complications are uncommon, reactions to this variant still vary among individuals and are especially risky for children. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 29,000 children have been hospitalized and 1,000 have died from COVID-19. Coronavirus infection is also associated with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a deadly condition related to heart damage. Attendants of these events are ultimately taking a risk by hoping they don’t have a serious reaction that jeopardizes their health. 

Medical experts also denounce the comparison of COVID-19 to the Chickenpox virus. Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency medicine physician, explains numerous differences between these two infectious diseases. He first comments on the contrasting impacts of the virus, stating, “The death rate with chickenpox was incredibly low anyway, but with COVID we’re still seeing significant risk, hospitalizations, long-term complications, and death.” Unlike pox parties, infection during this pandemic has had more severe and lasting consequences. Furthermore, the medical community is still learning about components of the coronavirus, including immunity. People infected with Chickenpox were provided with a life-time of protection from the disease. In contrast, many individuals can be infected with the coronavirus more than once and are not provided any greater relief through their natural immunity. Exposure to COVID-19 specifically does not protect individuals from its variants, as the immune system can react differently to each strain of the virus. 

The resurface of pox parties ultimately puts the larger community in danger. Due to these gatherings, hospitals are further overwhelmed by the increasing number of COVID-19 patients. Stretched for resources, these medical centers struggle to provide for both these cases and other seriously ill patients. The University of Wisconsin Hospital even issued a plea to their community, hoping to create awareness on this serious situation. The workers warn, “Soon you or someone you love may need us, but we won’t be able to provide the lifesaving care you need, whether for Covid-19, cancer, heart disease or other urgent conditions. As health care providers, we are terrified of that becoming reality.”

Mirroring the introduction of the Chickenpox vaccine, the medical community advocates for the coronavirus vaccination over natural immunity. Exposure to the virus does not offer benefits for the individual, and solely harms public health. While the return to normalcy seems like a distant dream, the decline of pox parties will only bring the nation closer to this goal.

 

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English major and double-minor in Sociology and Business Management. You can probably find me on a run around the res, getting coffee, or listening to Hozier.

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