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March 22, 2019

Kentucky's governor took his 9 children to a 'chickenpox party.' That's a terrible idea, experts say.

Daily Briefing

    Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) on Tuesday said he deliberately exposed his children to the chickenpox virus rather than vaccinating them against the disease—an approach that runs contrary to CDC guidance and met with harsh criticism from public health experts.

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    Why Bevin exposed 'every single one' of his kids to chickenpox

    During an interview with WKCT, Bevin said, "Every single one of my kids had the chickenpox." He added, "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."

    Bevin said he exposed his kids to the virus because he believes that people who develop a natural immunity to chickenpox are more protected against the virus than those who gain immunity via a vaccine, the Washington Post reports.

    Bevin said his kids were "miserable for a few days" after being exposed to chickenpox, but insisted that "they all turned out fine."

    Bevin in the interview said parents should vaccinate their children if they are "worried about [their] child getting chickenpox," but he doesn't believe it's the government's place to mandate the vaccination. In Kentucky, for instance, children have to be vaccinated for the disease to enter kindergarten but can seek exemptions for religion or if the child, like Bevin's children, already had the disease, the Associated Press reports.

    "Why are we forcing kids to get it?" Bevin said. "[I]n many instances, those vaccinations make great sense. But for some people, and for some parents, for some reason they choose otherwise."

    Public health experts: Chickenpox parties are dangerous

    "Chickenpox parties," a term describing the practice of deliberately exposing children to the virus by encouraging them to interact with infected children, were popular in the early 1990s before the chickenpox vaccine, also known as the Varicella vaccine, was widely available.

    Now, amid the anti-vaccination movement, and chickenpox parties are making a comeback. But CDC and public health experts strongly advise against the practice, saying that children face greater risk when exposed to the full virus.

    CDC on its website states that exposing children to the full chickenpox virus can lead to "severe complications," including bacterial infections, pneumonia and encephalitis. Since infants and adolescents are high-risk groups for complications, exposure to the full virus can also lead to "death, even in healthy children," CDC said.

    Further, when a child is exposed to chickenpox, CDC's website warns, "There is no way to tell in advance how severe your child’s symptoms will be."

    In contrast, the chickenpox vaccine—which CDC estimates prevents more than 3.5 million chickenpox cases, 9,000 hospitalizations, and 100 deaths annually—typically has mild side effects such as aching at the injection site or a very mild case of chickenpox. "So it is not worth taking the chance of exposing your child to someone with the disease. The best way to protect infants and children against chickenpox is to get them vaccinated," CDC's website states.

    As for parents like Bevin who favor chickenpox parties over vaccinations, Steven Teutsch, an adjunct professor of health policy and management at the University of California at Los Angeles, said, "It's a public health hazard … that leaves the kids and the population vulnerable."

    William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said Bevin's decision is "not an example for any of us." He added, "We should vaccinate all our children. It's a great triumph of public health in the United States. Let's not take a step backward."

    Bevin and his office did not reply to requests for comment from AP or the Washington Post (Schreiner, AP/Sacramento Bee, 3/20; Rosenberg, Washington Post, 3/20). 

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