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Pox parties taken to the next (illegal) level

Normally, we don’t post on weekends on this particular blog, mainly because most of our readership visits during the week and we don’t have enough bloggers to cover the weekend reliably anyway. However, occasionally something happens that’s so bizarre, so worrisom that we can’t wait until Monday. I don’t even care if I’m late to the party after Tara, Mike the Mad Biologist, The Biology Files, Todd, and probably several others whom I’ve missed.

Regular readers of this blog and anyone who’s ever followed the anti-vaccine movement more than superficially have probably heard of pox parties. These are, yes, parties where parents who don’t want to vaccinate their children against chickenpox, hoping for “natural immunity,” expose their children who have never had chickenpox to children with active chickenpox in order to intentionally infect them with the disease. (Thanks, Mom and Dad, for a couple of weeks worth of misery and intense itching and a small chance of serious complications!) Although there might have been a weak rationale for such activities back before there was a vaccine for chickenpox, today pox parties are about as dumb a concept as I can think of and only make sense in the context of equally idiotic anti-vaccine pseudoscience, and apparently, as is the case with many idiotic things, has co-opted Facebook and other discussion forums as a means of getting like minded (if you can call what is behind this a “mind”) together for purposes of inflicting misery on their children. One such page even has a Quack Miranda-style warning:

It is explicitly expressed that, regardless of the beliefs of the group moderator or its members, the group is not responsible for the outcome of the connections made. This group is not intended to give medical advice, speak as a medical authority, or cause children to contract any illness. Parents who do so on this board, do so at their own risk and without the advise or recommendation of the leadership of this group.

Which is, of course, a lie so obvious that one wonders why the moderators even bothered.

Some proudly display pictures of pox on children’s limbs. Others are even so proud of their “efforts,” that they proudly post pictures of them on their blogs, with captions such as “The little people enjoying each other, playing, and getting exposed” and “Although it sounds awful, we certainly hope the exposing worked!” I can only shake my head and respond that “it” doesn’t just “sound” awful. It is awful. True, major complications are fairly uncommon but they can be quite serious, with all of this being done in the name of being “natural” and avoiding those evil vaccines. It turns out that some parents, apparently having difficulty finding children with active chickenpox in their area (thanks to the aforementioned evil vaccine, no doubt), are mailing the virus to each other:

Doctors and medical experts are concerned about a new trend taking place on Facebook. Parents are trading live viruses through the mail in order to infect their children.

The Facebook group is called “Find a Pox Party in Your Area.” According to the group’s page, it is geared toward “parents who want their children to obtain natural immunity for the chicken pox.”

On the page, parents post where they live and ask if anyone with a child who has the chicken pox would be willing to send saliva, infected lollipops or clothing through the mail.

Parents also use the page to set up play dates with children who currently have chicken pox.

Medical experts say the most troubling part of this is parents are taking pathogens from complete strangers and deliberately infecting their children.

One concern is that they are sending the virus through the mail.

Here’s video of the local Arizona news report:

Again, I can’t begin to describe how reckless this is. It’s also highly illegal—a federal offense. I know of what I speak, because I personally have had to ship viruses and DNA plasmids through the mail. The reason was when I changed jobs about four years ago and was in the process of moving my laboratory to a new institution. I had a lot of adenoviral constructs. Varicella virus falls under the same sorts of rules as adenovirus. There are very specific rules for shipping. Tara explains quite nicely some of the requirements, among which is that there are very specific labeling requirements for the package to indicate what pathogens are inside. In fact, I found out the hard way just how rigorous and complex the labeling requirements were when a couple of the packages were returned because, as much as we tried to follow the letter of the regulations, we had somehow missed something in the labeling and paperwork. At that point I even briefly flirted with the idea of loading the samples up in my car and taking them myself when I hit the road to my new location. I quickly abandoned that notion, realizing that that, too, would be illegal and, worse, potentially dangerous. What if I got in a car crash along the way? So instead, we checked, double checked, and triple checked our packaging and paperwork and sent it again. This time, it went through, as we hadn’t missed any of the requirements.

As Mike the Mad Biologist points out, this is little different from bioterrorism, other than in intent. For one thing, the parents doing this seem utterly oblivious to the potential danger to the postal workers or workers at FedEx, UPS, or other shipping company that they use to send these biohazards. One also wonders if the parents use anything approaching proper technique to insert their “gifts” into the packages so that they don’t get it on their fingers and thus contaminate the outside of the package. In any case, should the package be damaged or should the baggy fail, so much for containment, and anyone who comes into contact with the package is at risk. That’s why there are so many federal regulations about shipping biohazardous substances across state lines. Indeed, when it was pointed out that shipping biohazards like bodily fluids from an individual infected with varicella across state lines is a federal offense, this was the reaction:

A Facebook post reads, “I got a Pox Package in mail just moments ago. I have two lollipops and a wet rag and spit.” Another woman warns, “This is a federal offense to intentionally mail a contagion.”

Another woman answers, “Tuck it inside a zip lock baggy and then put the baggy in the envelope :) Don’t put anything identifying it as pox.”

The level of irresponsibility and lack of concern for fellow human beings is staggering. As Todd points out, it’s not just varicella that might be in there? How does anyone know that there aren’t other pathogens in there? They are utterly self-absorbed, selfish, and lack concern for anyone but themselves and their own family. Indeed, look at the interview with the first mother in the video; she openly discusses sending pox through the mail and doesn’t seem to think it’s a big deal, all the while rambling on about how it’s the parents’ “choice.” The second mother, when confronted by a reporter, out and out lies about what was on her Facebook page, denying that she ever sent pox through the mail. It’s a mindset that was perfectly described as a Me! Mine! Mommy mindset that boils down to, basically, the right to be selfish.

But it’s worse than that. Near the end of the report from the local CBS affiliate above, there is a post from a parent looking for measles, which is much more dangerous than chickenpox. Her reason? This:

Dad is threatening to take it to court and getting exposed is the only way not to get the vaccine without possibly losing custody.

If you want an example of how far the irrational fear of vaccines will drive some people, you have no further to look than this story. At the risk of being too “strident” or “nasty” or “uncivil,” I can say unequivocally that what they are doing is, in my opinion, child abuse and that I hope that the feds come down on them like a ton of bricks for violating federal law and endangering everyone who comes into contact with their little “pox packages.”

Posted in: Vaccines

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36 thoughts on “Pox parties taken to the next (illegal) level

  1. shawmutt says:

    I am glad this story is growing legs. I did my tiny part and reported the facebook page, I hope other follow suit.

  2. TurangaLeela says:

    My son developed JRA after a bout of chickenpox (the vax wasn’t yet available) and he used to get physical therapy with a boy who’d had a stroke because of the chickenpox. I know complications are rare, but I look at my son and remember that other little boy and I get really pissed off at these parents. Especially the last one mentioned in the story. She should lose custody.

  3. Kobra says:

    So if these kids by chance happen to come across immunocompromised individuals who subsequently manifest severe sequelae, can we charge the parents for attempted manslaughter or gross negligence?

  4. shawmutt says:

    …and it looks like the Facebook page was either removed or moved, the link is dead.

  5. Quill says:

    They are utterly self-absorbed, selfish, and lack concern for anyone but themselves and their own family.

    I agree entirely with this assessment except possibly for the last four words. If they really had genuine concern for their families they would NOT be getting their medical info from junk internet sites that make the National Enquirer look like a font of respectability and reason.

    It is interesting to see how this selfishness multiples via Facebook and other sites. It used to be every block had one wacky family that wrapped their doorknobs in aluminum foil, took their garbage cans out to a trumpet voluntary, and painted their crabgrass a lovely shade of blue. But these days every crazy household seems to find a website and Facebook page and through the appeal to authority and simply seeing something in “print” it all seems magically real and perfectly normal.

    …I can say unequivocally that what they are doing is, in my opinion, child abuse and that I hope that the feds come down on them like a ton of bricks for violating federal law and endangering everyone who comes into contact with their little “pox packages.”

    I completely agree. Won’t it be interesting if some big outbreak of a disease in the U.S. is linked not to shady groups in the wilds of Afghanistan but to Mrs. Ninny Poxmailer, believer in all things “natural,” mother of four (two in hospital), from Chumpwit, Arizona?

  6. daedalus2u says:

    I hope that Fedex and the other shipping companies track down who sent biohazardous material and prosecutes them to the fullest extent of the law.

  7. I’m sorry, I started out being really horrified. I mean these parents are just incredibly stupid, ridiculous and backward. Their behavior screams cult.

    On the other hand,

    “As Mike the Mad Biologist points out, this is no different from bioterrorism, other than in intent”
    what IS actually terrorism without the intent to terrorize?…not terrorism. Is a lollipop that a child with chicken pox has sucked on really equivalent to weaponized smallpox? If I forget and lick my Credit card payment envelope while I have strep, then mail it, am I too a bioterriorist without the intent?

    “The level of irresponsibility and lack of concern for fellow human beings is staggering. As Todd points out, it’s not just varicella that might be in there? How does anyone know that there aren’t other pathogens in there? ”

    Well, yes, the level of irresponsibility and lack of concern and just general stupidity is staggering. But I still have to point out that mail is not something we generally think of keeping sterile, we lick envelopes, we don’t wash our hands before packing mail. And, I’ll be honest, I may have had to change a baby diaper in a car once or twice or dealing with a bleeding child on the way to the post office or in other public places, and I may have always had the chance to use a wet wipe to clean my hands after. Does anyone really know what pathogens were there?

    Maybe I’m missing the point here, but as a laymen I don’t get this aspect of the article.

    I suspect the measles lady should receive a visit from CPS. I’m not one to jump at removing children from their parents, because that is very painful for the children. But, I would think that a home inspection to rule out other dangerous wackiness and at least some health education and counseling maybe be in order (But I’m not a social worker).

    Sorry, I know my response probably won’t be well received. :(

  8. I may have ONLY had the chance to use a wet wipe.

  9. tmac57 says:

    Happy Pox Day to youuu

    Fever,aches and blisters toooo

    Hope you don’t get pneu-mon-iaaaa

    Happy Pox Day to youuuuuuuu (and many moreeeee)

  10. nybgrus says:

    @michele:

    I won’t attempt to speak for Dr. Gorski on this one, but my personal take of it is that it was just a little bit of hyperbole.

    In regards to the “bioterrorism” one the difference between what is happening here and your example is that these people are intentionally and knowingly mailing live viruses. The intent difference is that the live virus is to be used on a single non-consenting (more accurately not-able-to-consent) individual rather than a large number of individuals. What you describe is the accidental and normal daily contamination that exists in a non-sterile world. This is fundamentally different, though as I said, perhaps a bit hyperbolic.

    As for the “what else might be there” – once again, this is an attempt at harvesting a live virus from a child. By people who, I would be willing to bet, have not seen a doctor to diagnose exactly what it is said child has. Already sick children, particularly from households that would hold such beliefs, may in fact have multiple potentially serious (i.e. vaccine preventable) diseases going on. But more than that, they may in fact have something other than varicella and not have any idea since they can’t accurately diagnose. It may be an odd variant, it may be measles, or any other pox-type disease. And it may be a very rare variant that could be more lethal but have died out, save the fact it was mailde around to make sure other people contracted it.

    Once again, some of these are stretches, but it is what I first think about and certainly within the realm of possibility. Perhaps a touch of stylistic hyperbole, but, IMO, that’s about it.

    They were perfectly reasonable questions and I hope I have answered them satisfactorily Michele – and reasonably accurately, Dr. Gorski. I’m sure there is probably something I am missing, those were just the first things to jump to my mind at 6:30am over my coffee.

  11. ConspicuousCarl says:

    What is the logic of the “pox party”? If we were to pretend that vaccines didn’t exist, is it really so much worse to get chicken pox as an adult, vs. as a child, that it is better to get it for certain now vs. possibly getting it later?

  12. tmac57 says:

    Carl,my understanding is that adult cases of chicken pox are more serious than childhood cases,but I don’t know this to be an absolute fact.If true,it would be better to contract it as a child,but probably better still, to never contract it, and be protected by vaccine instead.Once you have the virus,it stays with you for life,and can reemerge as shingles,which I can tell you from personal experience,YOU DO NOT WANT!

  13. Vera Montanum says:

    I recall from personal experience that, in the early 1950’s pre-vaccine days, it was very common to expose one’s child to others who had measles, mumps, and/or chickenpox. “Let’s get it over with” was the thinking. Thank goodness they had enough common sense to stop short at polio, whooping cough, and tuberculosis – there was too much of that as it was.

    But, today? It really does seem tantamount to child abuse… and a threat to public health as well. Unbelievable! Thanks for the post.

  14. Alexander Han says:

    Varicella zoster virus causes varicella zoster (chicken pox) and herpes zoster (shingles). Kids who are infected early in life are at risk for shingles later, since the virus becomes latent and never leaves the body. Adults who are infected are much more likely to develop varicella pneumonia. Perinatal varicella, where a woman is infected around 5 days before giving birth or the infant is infected within ~48 hours, has a mortality rate around 30%.

    Basically, the natural history of this disease is such that choosing infection over vaccination means putting your community at risk and cursing your kids to a recurring, painful, blistering rash if they ever get immunocompromised or live beyond their sixties.

  15. peicurmudgeon says:

    According to the Regulations of Transportation of Dangerous Goods in Canada, mailing viruses is also illegal in Canada. http://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/tdg/clear-part1-475.htm

  16. daedalus2u says:

    I hope that Homeland Security picks up on this and rounds everyone up and puts them in jail. This would be good practice for a more serious bioterrorism event (although this one is pretty serious).

    I hope they have already rounded them up, or do so before the start of business tomorrow.

    Facebook certainly has their contact information, Fedex can trace what ever they sent. If there are packages in transit, they can be stopped. Virus strains can be sequenced so the infection chain can be traced. They can probably recover sequences even from dead virus shed weeks ago.

    As I read the definitions, sending chicken pox through the mail and infecting someone who can’t consent (i.e. a minor child) is certainly “violence”, so it falls under the definition of “terrorism”.

    http://terrorism.about.com/od/whatisterroris1/ss/DefineTerrorism_5.htm

    There does not need to be the intent to “terrorize”. A terrorist act is simply politically motivated premeditated violence against non-combatant targets.

    The attack is motivated by the political anti-vaccine beliefs of those involved. Virus has been sent from the US to Canada, so it is international terrorism. The people who did this are a sub-group of the larger anti-vaccine political group, so there may now be grounds for rounding them all up.

    They can then also prosecute those who have provided material support to these international terrorist organizations.

  17. philipbowman says:

    Interesting. Here in the UK, the ‘Pox Party’ idea – or at least, going to play with a kid with CP – is one of those ideas that often gets discussed with very little of the criticism in this article. But then, CP is the one common illness that’s not part of the standard vaccination programme here.

    http://www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/1032.aspx?CategoryID=62&SubCategoryID=63

  18. Ali771 says:

    @ Alexander Han
    “Basically, the natural history of this disease is such that choosing infection over vaccination means putting your community at risk and cursing your kids to a recurring, painful, blistering rash if they ever get immunocompromised or live beyond their sixties.”

    Well put.

    What a dismal state of early science education that so many mothers are so jumbled about the basic nature of transmissible diseases and the rational of vaccinations.

  19. Ali771 says:

    …that’s rationale.
    *embarrassed*

  20. kathy says:

    Not being American, I can hardly speak for them, but isn’t it generally accepted in the USA that there is a limit to “freedom of choice”? That the whole point of having laws is to set those limits? Surely individual people don’t get to set the limits where it suits them?

    As for sending viruses to other people, at the risk of appearing paranoid, it seems like a good camoflague for more serious bioterrorism.

    Actually what I was thinking of were those “nice” mothers, nurses, etc., who get a sick kick out of making other people ill or even killing them. Maybe I’ve been watching too many TV programs about “Angels of Death” though! It surely won’t happen again, that’s just TV stuff.

  21. nybgrus says:

    isn’t it generally accepted in the USA that there is a limit to “freedom of choice”?

    I wish. The very fundamental ethos of Americans these days is that they will destroy you if you even remotely hint at taking away their freedom of choice. Usually by invoking god, brimstone, and maybe some sort of physical attack on occasion.

  22. msvyvyan says:

    Chickenpox is caused by Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV) and is usually (and I’d like to stress ‘usually’) reasonably harmless when contracted as a child, though it can leave some pretty nasty scars if the child scratches or knocks scabs off. The issues here are that VZV is awful if contracted as an adult, and associated with significant morbidity and mortality, and the horrid spectre of later life reactivation as shingles. I’ll try not to bore you, but:
    1. VZV is a herpes family virus, so lurks in ganglia until apparently spontaneous reactivation (think of cold sores. They’re a herpes virus)
    2. Reactivation is often very painful, and can last a long time.
    3. Post herpetic pain can be so severe that desperate sufferers attempt suicide, or get entire nerve branches surgically removed (note, this does not necessarily work. Also, um, yeah. I’d rather not to be rendered so desperate by unceasing pain that opting for surgery and numbness over the area innervated by a dorsal root ganglion or two seems a reasonable response)
    4. Activation is more common in people whose immune response to VZV isn’t ‘topped up’ by exposure to VZV, and becomes more likely the older you get. So these kids, living in a world where VZV is no longer endemic? They’ll be cursing their anti-vax mothers, but probably only in another 40 or 50 years.

    The idea of sending pathogens through the mail and possibly infecting some poor innocent (adult, non VZV positive) postal worker and subjecting them to weeks of severe, painful and even life threatening illness? Ah. That makes me very cross. I’d like to think postal workers have read about this and have their vaccinations up to scratch.

  23. nybgrus “The very fundamental ethos of Americans these days is that they will destroy you if you even remotely hint at taking away their freedom of choice.”

    Well unless someone uses the word “terrorism” in which case the fundamental ethos will allow that you can be jailed or imprisoned without charge or permission to meet with a lawyer or family, have your cellphone data mined without a warrant or be racially profiled for search, arrest or restricted travel.

    But besides that, Americans are all for freedom.

  24. nybgrus says:

    touche. Though I’d say they are happy to take away individual’s freedom (particularl if they aren’t WASPish), but not groups freedom of choice. I’m specifically thinking of the Republicans trying to teach creationism in science class as a “choice” issue, CAM as a health choice freedom, and the “death squad” metaphor regarding health care changes.

  25. Scott says:

    I’d say that it’s more an attitude (not universal, but distressingly common) that MY freedom of choice is sacred and cannot be abridged in any way, but I should be able to restrict everybody ELSE’S freedom of choice however is most convenient for me.

  26. Yes, I thinks Scott’s hit the nail on the head.

  27. Kenneth says:

    Please tell me the global temperature dropped by about… 50F about fifteen minutes ago, when I read the statement about the parent looking to have someone send her measles-contaminated objects…

  28. nybgrus says:

    yes scott, I agree. That is a much better way of describing it.

  29. DugganSC says:

    Just had a sighting last night of a friend posting an article from FaceCrooks about this practice, albeit expressing her preference of “natural” immunity versus vaccines for other diseases. I referred her to this article, but I’m not sure whether she read it.

  30. Angora Rabbit says:

    National Public Radio’s All Things Considered just had a report about pox parties and the woman who offers to mail infected items. Apparently the (US?) Attorney General is investigating. The report was very pro-science. For those who missed it, it will be available shortly at npr.org.

    Good job, Dr. Gorski.

  31. Evil Mammoth says:

    The idea of sending pathogens through the mail and possibly infecting some poor innocent (adult, non VZV positive) postal worker and subjecting them to weeks of severe, painful and even life threatening illness? Ah. That makes me very cross. I’d like to think postal workers have read about this and have their vaccinations up to scratch.

    msvyvyan: Cross may even be putting it kindly. What if mail-order pox parties eventually turn into parties with another nastier and more contagious guest of honor? I wouldn’t put it past someone marinated in naturalistic fallacies.

    Angora Rabbit: Good to hear this is being formally investigated.

  32. lilady says:

    I think the anti-vax “mommy (and daddy) warriors” have now ventured into a real prosecutable offense here.

    Prior to this, their crazy theories about cures (extraordinarily restricted/unbalance diets, huge amounts of “supplements”, chelation treatments, etc.) were inflicted on their disabled kids mainly within their family circle, with little interference from governmental authorites. The only exceptions would be if their “vaccine-injured” child ended up as casualty from IV chelations. I for one, felt these “treatments” constituted cruel and abusive treatment of youngsters by the parents who would try anything to achieve a “cure”.

    Clearly, the mailing of infectious material and the receipt of this material to deliberately expose and infect a child with a vaccine-preventable disease, constitutes abuse.

    People who are employed to handle such packages are put at risk, as well as anyone who does not have immunity against the virus is also put at risk. It can be a particular devastating disease for pregnant women, their fetuses and the newborns whose mothers are recently infected at the time of delivery.

    Dr. Gorski and others have pointed out the strict rules set up by the U.S. Postal Service and other package delivery systems for the mailing of biological specimens. The IATA (International Air Transportation Association) on its website describes the strict shipping requirements of Hazard Materials that include biologicals. All the air carriers are signatories to international treaties that determine what is considered Haz Mat materials. I suspect that all common carriers (buses, trains and the trucking industry) also have strict rules set up by the DOT and Homeland Security about the shipping of biological hazards.

    Of course licensed heath care and mental health care professionals…as well as teachers…are “mandatory reporters” who are required by law to report suspected instances of medical, physical and emotional abuse or neglect. “Civilians” (anyone who has suspicions of child abuse or neglect) can phone in to abuse and neglect hotlines to report suspect cases, as well.

    I think it is incumbent on the bloggers and the posters to not let this news story “die”. It is an opportunity to expose these anti-vax loons for the world to see just how truly dangerous they are.

  33. radu says:

    If you like black humor and want to see some really great, if a bit infantile, anti anti-vaccine propaganda, then South Park has an excellent episode about pox parties http://www.southparkstudios.com/full-episodes/s02e10-chickenpox . I especially like the part where the children have their revenge.

  34. LMA says:

    It occurs to me that the types of people who are mailing infectious diseases to one another today would, in the ’80s, have been pulling their children out of public school on the rumor that another kid in the class was HIV+

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