By Karen Ernst
My own personal experience is a poor excuse for supporting the chicken pox vaccine. I had a relatively mild case of chicken pox with a moderate number of pox congregating on my belly and little feeling of illness or malaise. In fact, the week I spent with chicken pox is one of my warmest childhood memories since my parents could not take the time off of work and shipped me off, instead, to my grandparents’ house. I spent most of the week eating cookies, playing boardgames with my grandfather, and watching Wheel of Fortune and The Thunderbirds with my grandmother. Not bad at all.
Despite these warm memories, I vaccinated my children against chicken pox because I have always understood that my personal experiences are not universal and because I know it is impossible to predict whether a child will suffer a mild or a virulent form of this disease. But it was not until a recent discussion with my mother that I understood completely why my decision to disregard my childhood memories was wise.
My mother had seen a news report about pox parties, and she was understandably upset that parents of my generation were not only opting out of this vaccine but also purposely exposing their children to the virus in hopes of making them ill. It should go without saying that pox parties are misguided at best, so I agreed with her wholeheartedly, adding, “I don't remember anyone attending a pox party when I was a child.”
Something that was not part of my warm, cookie-laden memories of chicken pox was also something that meant no one in my school would have attended a pox party. According to my mother, one of my grade school classmates had a compromised immune system, making chicken pox particularly dangerous. Near the end of each winter, the school sent home a letter reminding parents to watch out for signs of chicken pox and to keep their children home if they showed any symptoms of the illness. Parents, as responsible members of a caring community, tried to avoid chicken pox if possible and did their most to stop its spread through the school. Such actions are genuinely the opposite in spirit of a chicken pox party.
Today, we have a safe and effective vaccine that prevents the spread of chicken pox. We absolutely cannot allow our personal experiences to shade our decisions about the vaccine. Children with compromised immune systems are in our schools, at our libraries, and at our parks. They deserve the safety that the vaccine provides even if they can’t have the vaccine themselves, and we, as parents, can provide them that safety by vaccinating our own children and keeping them away from other children when they are ill rather than throwing a party for them to sicken their friends.
My children will probably miss out on watching The Thunderbirds with my parents while feeling itchy. I am okay with that because I am certain that they will have other, healthier childhood memories and because they can grow up to understand that we vaccinate out of care and compassion for our friends, classmates, and neighbors.