Some parents in California are reportedly considering throwing “measles parties” — social gatherings where unvaccinated children can intentionally come into contact with infected kids — in an effort to build up their children’s natural resistance to the infectious disease.
Julie Schiffman, a San Francisco mother who has chosen not to vaccinate her two children, told KQED’s California Report that she was recently approached by a friend who invited her to a measles party. The friend offered to arrange a play date with a child who currently has measles. Schiffman said she turned her down.
“I would want that to be something they decide on their own, when they’re older and are more capable of assessing the risks and dangers,” she said. “When they’re teenagers, I’d say, ‘okay, you have a choice, you can get vaccinated or you can get the measles, what would you rather?’”
California officials say they haven’t heard of other instances of intentional exposure to measles, though a local public health officer told the Los Angeles Times that his office has received several inquiries about the benefits of so-called “natural immunity,” rather than immunity from a vaccine.
Before the development of the chicken pox vaccine, this particular “natural infection” tactic used to be popular among parents who wanted to give their children the virus while they were still young, believing that the infection would be less severe. Now, despite the fact that there’s a safe and effective vaccine available to prevent that disease, the practice has persisted among some parents who are skeptical about following the government’s recommended immunization schedule.
The rise of social media has made it easier than ever before for parents to plan so-called “pox parties.” The Facebook group Let’s Have a Chickenpox Party, for instance, helps anti-vaccine parents connect with each other and publicize their pox-related events. In 2011, some adults even started mailing infected lollipops across state lines, a practice that violates federal law.
The idea has been floated for other diseases, too. When a serious strain of influenza colloquially known as “swine flu” started spreading in 2009, some people started suggesting holding swine flu parties for their kids. The idea was that surviving a milder strain of the virus earlier in the season would protect children from a deadlier strain that could emerge later.
Health experts are strongly opposed to intentionally infecting kids with diseases. “I think it’s totally nuts,” Dr. Anne Moscona, a flu specialist at Cornell University, told the New York Times back when reporters started asking her about swine flu parties. “This is like the Middle Ages, when people deliberately infected themselves with smallpox. It’s vigilante vaccination — you know, taking immunity into your own hands.”
Now that we’ve developed safe and effective vaccines to protect kids, doctors say it’s unnecessary to expose them to dangerous diseases in this way. After all, the whole point of vaccination is to build up kids’ immunity in a controlled and less medically risky way.
Public health officials in California are warning parents against participating in measles parties, particularly since the disease is among the most contagious in the world. In a recent email, the California Department of Public Health said that such a practice “unnecessarily places the exposed children at potentially grave risk and could contribute to further spread of the outbreak.”
Indeed, the practice can backfire. As Forbes reports, there were some cases in the early 1900s that involved parents intentionally infecting their kids with measles and losing all of them to the disease, which can be particularly dangerous in young children. Although many modern parents don’t think of measles as a serious threat, it remains one of the leading causes of death among young children around the world, largely in countries where kids don’t have access to the vaccine.
The number of U.S. measles cases linked to an unvaccinated woman who visited Disneyland last month has recently topped 100. The rapid spread of the disease has affected some children who are physically unable to get immunized. Five babies too young to get their shots recently contracted measles at a daycare in Chicago. One child was diagnosed with measles after attending a daycare in Santa Monica, forcing the parents of 14 other infants to quarantine their kids.