The Vaccine that Spoiled the Party
Chapter 3: Immune Therapies (Sidebar)

by From the Dana Sourcebook of Immunology

January, 2006

Chicken pox is a highly infectious disease caused by a herpes virus transmitted by airborne droplets. Following a mild fever, an itchy rash breaks out that develops into blisters and then scabs. Chicken pox is rare in adults because an infection in childhood generally confers lifelong immunity. An attack in adults often takes a more severe form. Most children now receive a preventive vaccine. Eamonn McNulty / Photo Researchers, Inc.

Not so long ago, parents wanted their children to contract certain common childhood diseases while they were still young so that they would develop adaptive immunity that would last throughout their lives. In some cases, families organized “chicken pox parties,” “measles parties,” and “rubella parties.” However, the development of a vaccine has changed what was once a rite of childhood.

In the 1970s, in Japan, researchers isolated a virus from a child’s chicken pox spot, weakened it in a laboratory, and made it into a chicken pox vaccine. This live, attenuated vaccine was approved for use in the United States in 1995. Live vaccines, like natural infections, multiply in the body and stimulate immunity. The immunity provided by attenuated vaccines may not last as long as immunity provided by natural infections, and therefore a “booster” dose is sometimes given. Although the vaccine virus is too weak to cause disease in healthy people, it can cause soreness at the injection site or a mild rash. People with weakened immune systems should not get the vaccine, because they are more likely to have severe reactions.

Although usually mild, chicken pox can cause major problems in the skin, lungs, and brain, especially in adults and people with weakened immune systems. Before the vaccine became available, 4 million Americans came down with chicken pox each year, 11,000 were hospitalized, and 100 died. The vaccine has cut the death rate in half. About 80 percent of people who get the vaccine are protected from disease if they are later exposed to chicken pox. Those who get the vaccine and still contract chicken pox have a mild case, with fewer than 50 spots, compared with 300 to 1,500 spots in unvaccinated people.

Despite the safety and effectiveness of the chicken pox and other vaccines, some parents avoid having their children vaccinated because they believe that vaccines may cause autism or other health problems, though many studies that have concluded otherwise. Although there are some risks from the vaccine, most reactions are mild, and serious reactions are very rare.

Todd got the chicken pox, little red speckles from his head to his socks

The doctor said “Quarantine:2weeks incubation!”

They called up all their friends to have a big celebration

“Chicken pox party! Come one, come all!

If your toddler hasn’t had ’em yet there’s no time to stall!”

Hip hooray happy unhappy day the day you spot ’em;

Nobody told me and I’d never had ’em, now I got ’em

Have I hit the bottom yet?

—Billy Jonas, “Hit the Bottom,”2000