It is very easy to get confused when thinking or talking about chicken pox and shingles.
Remembering a few things should help though:
shingles (herpes zoster) is a reactivation of chicken pox (varicella zoster) – since they are caused by the same virus, you had to have been exposed to the chicken pox virus (varicella zoster virus) to later get shingles
exposure to the chicken pox virus can come from a natural chicken pox infection or from getting vaccinated against chicken pox, as it is a live, attenuated vaccine (Varivax)
So no, getting the chicken pox vaccine will not prevent you from later getting shingles. The shingles vaccine is a different vaccine that is given to seniors to help prevent them from getting shingles.
Can You Still Get Shingles After Having the Chicken Pox Vaccine?
Have you ever heard of a child vaccinated against chicken pox getting shingles? It can happen. It’s not a vaccine injury.
Remember that you can get shingles at any age – it is not just a disease of senior citizens. Even preschools or teens can get shingles, with the risk increasing with age.
Although the chicken pox vaccine won’t prevent you from getting shingles, it does work well to prevent you from getting chicken pox.
And it is thought that getting vaccinated and protected against chicken pox will decrease your risk of later getting shingles, even before you ever get the shingles vaccine.
“In the early post-varicella vaccination period, incidence rates of medically attended herpes zoster did not increase for the overall population and decreased moderately for children 9 years and younger, the age group targeted for varicella vaccination.”
Tanuseputro et al on Population-based incidence of herpes zoster after introduction of a publicly funded varicella vaccination program
Even in the pre-vaccine era, when measles would kill 500 people a year in the United States, there is a very good chance that you wouldn’t have known anyone that died of measles. Of course, that doesn’t mean that nobody died of measles or chicken pox or any other now vaccine-preventable disease.
You likely know someone that plays football, right? Maybe on a youth football team or in middle school or high school? Do you know anyone that plays on a team in the NFL? While millions of kids might play football, only a few thousand play in the NFL.
Chicken pox was never a benign disease. It was considered a rite of passage because we all had to endure it, but it wasn’t something anyone looked forward to. You don’t die from a benign disease.
Part of that is actually true – “they keep you a customer for life” because you didn’t die from a vaccine-preventable disease!
Many countries don’t have the chicken pox vaccine on their routine immunization schedule because they don’t think it is cost-effective and they were concerned about what controlling chicken pox could do to rates of shingles.
“About 3 in every 1000 pregnant women in the UK catch chickenpox. Between 1985 and 1998, nine pregnant women died in the UK from chickenpox complications. Their unborn babies are also at risk from a rare condition called foetal varicella syndrome (FVS). This can result in serious long-term damage to the baby or even death, particularly if the mother catches chickenpox in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.”
Vaccine Knowledge Project on Chickenpox (Varicella)
These countries have the same rates of shingles as countries that do use the chicken pox vaccine, but still have high rates of chicken pox and complications of chicken pox!
The UK does not vaccinate for chicken pox, but young, otherwise healthy kids die with chicken pox in the UK.
While you will be at higher risk for complications from chicken pox and most other diseases if you have a compromised immune system or are malnourished, if you are otherwise healthy, there is nothing you can do to boost your immune system to try and beat chicken pox – besides getting vaccinated.
Chicken pox parties kind of made sense in the pre-vaccine era. Since it was inevitable that your child would get chicken pox, you wanted them to get it at a young age, so they weren’t at increased risk for complications as an adult.
a previously healthy, unvaccinated 23-month-old boy developed chicken pox and died three weeks later after developing sepsis, possible viral meningoencephalitis, bacterial endocarditis, and heart failure. (1996)
a previously healthy, unvaccinated 21-month old developed chicken pox and died four days later because of hemorrhagic complications (1997)
an unvaccinated 5-year-old boy with asthma was treated with one dose of prednisone at home for an asthma attack while recovering from chicken pox and died the next day (1997)
a healthy, unvaccinated 6-year-old boy developed chicken pox, was hospitalized three days later, and died the next day (1998)
an 8-year-old being treated for leukemia developed chicken pox and died two weeks later (1998)
an unvaccinated 9-year-old girl was exposed to an unvaccinated children with chicken pox in after-school child care and school, developed chicken pox and died three days later with secondary cellulitis and sepsis. (2002)
a previously healthy, unvaccinated 11-year-old girl developed septic shock and died soon after being admitted to a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. (2002)
an unvaccinated 12-year-old boy was exposed to an unvaccinated classmate with chickenpox, developed chicken pox two weeks later, was admitted to the hospital after three days because of trouble breathing, and died on his second hospital day after suffering a cardiopulmonary arrest. (2003)
an unvaccinated 10-year-old girl developed chicken pox, with worsening 10 days later, including ataxia and mental status changes. After being hospitalized for three days, she began to have seizures and was declared brain dead the next day. (2004)
an unvaccinated 14-month-old girl developed chicken pox and worsened over the next three to five days. She eventually developed septic shock, was treated in an ER, and died within one hour of being transferred to a children’s hospital for further care. (2004)
a previously healthy, unvaccinated 15-year-old developed chicken pox, was admitted to the hospital three days later in septic shock, and died three weeks later. (2009)
a partially vaccinated 4-year-old girl who was being treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) was exposed to a cousin with chicken pox and later developed multi-organ failure and died (2012)
Chicken pox has always been a deadly disease.
“In the prevaccine era, approximately 11,000 persons with varicella required hospitalization each year. Hospitalization rates were approximately 2 to 3 per 1,000 cases among healthy children and 8 per 1,000 cases among adults. Death occurred in approximately 1 in 60,000 cases. From 1990 through 1996, an average of 103 deaths from varicella were reported each year. Most deaths occur in immunocompetent children and adults”
Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases
Although chicken pox is definitely riskier if you are older and have pre-existing medical problems, as you can see from these kids who died, many were otherwise healthy and many were very young.
“Chickenpox (varicella) is generally a much milder illness in children than in adults, with considerably lower rates of severe disease and death. Varicella is also virtually universal in many populations, meaning that very few individuals escape infection over a lifetime. Thus, a sound logic underlies the idea of chickenpox parties, at which susceptible children can acquire the contagious causative pathogen, varicella zoster virus (VZV), from their peers. However, chickenpox is not without risks, even for children of this age; severe, complicated, and occasionally fatal varicella occur in previously healthy children, as well as the immunocompromised (who are at very considerable risk).”
Hambleton et al on Chickenpox Party or Varicella Vaccine?
Most folks understand that. They get their kids vaccinated and have helped get chicken pox under very good control, with outbreaks of chicken pox declining over 95%.
“Each year, more than 3.5 million cases of varicella, 9,000 hospitalizations, and 100 deaths are prevented by varicella vaccination in the United States”
CDC on Monitoring the Impact of Varicella Vaccination
Apparently, not everyone has gotten the message though.
Remember when CPS had to investigate the mom who was having chicken pox parties in Plano, Texas a few years ago?
“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.”
CBS 5 Investigates mail order diseases
Or when anti-vaccine folks were selling and mailing lollipops contaminated with chicken pox to folks so that they could skip the trouble of finding a chicken pox party?
And then there’s that time that a family served chicken pox contaminated punch at their chicken pox party. Oh wait, that was The Simpsons…
So what are they up to now?
More of the same…
Apparently, there are still plenty of folks looking for chicken pox parties to infect their kids.
It is easy to see a lot of cognitive biases at play in the decision to host or bring a child to a chicken pox party, including ambiguity aversion (prefer what they think are the known risks of getting the disease), bandwagoning (they think everyone else is doing it, because in their echo chambers of anti-vaccine propaganda, everyone might), and optimism bias, etc.
There is also a very poor perception of risks, as the risks from a natural chicken pox infection are far, far greater than any risk from the vaccine.
In bigger news, Facebook has groups who’s mission is “finding pox,” so that parents can get their kids sick!
How many other PoX type groups are there on Facebook?
Do they understand the consequences of having these pox parties?
Of course, an investigation from CPS, the health department, or a medical board isn’t the most serious consequence that should discourage folks from hosting or attending a chicken pox party.
Chicken pox can be a serious, even life-threatening infection. Sure, many kids just get a mild case, but others get more serious cases and have bad complications, including skin infections, encephalitis, sepsis, or stroke.
And some people do still die from chicken pox, which is supposed to be a mild, childhood illness.
“This report describes a varicella death in an unvaccinated, previously healthy adolescent aged 15 years.”
Varicella Death of an Unvaccinated, Previously Healthy Adolescent — Ohio, 2009
Fortunately, these deaths have been nearly eliminated thanks to the chicken pox vaccine.
And that’s why parents who are on a mission for “finding pox” should rethink things and switch to a mission to get their kids vaccinated and protected.
From chicken pox parties and conspiracies about using flu shots to control our minds to vaccine injury stories, The Simpsons did it.
The Simpsons on Vaccines and Vaccine Preventable Diseases
The Simpsons have been on the air since 1989 – just before I started medical school.
Since then, as with many other topics, they have done ahead of their time when it comes to vaccines.
Consider that the episode “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes,” in which Homer creates a fake conspiracy website (Mr. X) and gets kidnapped by a mysterious group for stumbling upon a secret about how flu shots are given to control people’s minds, first aired on December 3, 2000. That’s long before Alex Jones and other folks started pushing these very same types of conspiracy theories about vaccines!
And the episode about chicken pox parties, “Milhouse of Sand and Fog,” came out way back on September 25, 2005. That’s before Jenny McCarthy appeared on Oprah and before Bob Sears wrote his “vaccine” book!
Vaccines – The Simpsons Did It
How many episodes of The Simpsons have mentioned vaccines or vaccine-preventable diseases?
“Bart’s Dog Gets an F” – sixteenth episode of Season 2 in which Lisa gets the mumps.
“Lisa’s Pony” – eighth episode of Season 3 in which Homer comes up with a way to save money on luxuries – “Well, you know, we’re always buying Maggie vaccinations for diseases she doesn’t even have!”
“Kamp Krusty” – first episode of Season 4 in which Lisa visits Dr. Hibbert “to get boosters for malaria, German measles, encephalitis, and Hansen’s disease” before heading to camp.
“Lisa’s First Word” – tenth episode of Season 4 in which Dr. Hibbert, at Lisa’s checkup, holds up a giant needle and gives him a “rubella inoculation” when he asks for a lollipop.
“Marge in Chains” – twenty-first episode of Season 4 in which a man is looking for a cure and eats a bee, thinking it is a vaccine.
“Lady Bouvier’s Lover” – twenty-first episode of Season 5 in which everyone sings the Armour Hot Dogs jingle at Maggie’s first birthday party and Milhouse, with spots on his face, sings “even kids with chicken pox” love hot dogs.
“Much Apu About Nothing” – twenty-third episode of Season 7 in which Cotton Mather is the first thing that Apu reads from Homer’s history notes from 9th grade.
“Take My Wife, Sleaze” – eighth episode of Season 11 in which Homer and Marge go to a 1950s-themed restaurant that sell polio dogs.
“Homer vs. Dignity” – fifth episode of Season 12 in which Homer, after coming into some money, is able to get his kids caught up on “six years’ worth of inoculations,” including an “anti-polio shot,” which was much bigger than the “regular” polio shot.
“The Computer Wore Menace Shoes” – sixth episode of Season 12 in which Ned Flanders reads a fake post from Homer on his Mr. X website about how flu shots are given as a form of mind control and he says “They’re controlling our minds with flu shots. I knew it. Well, kids, now aren’t you glad that we don’t believe in inoculations?” as his kids are shivering because they are sick and have fever. Homer is later kidnapped and taken to a secret island for revealing the conspiracy.
“Bart-Mangled Banner” – twenty-first episode of Season 15 in which Lisa and Bart go see Dr. Hibbert (“Children, you should be grateful you live in a country where childhood diseases have been practically…”) to get their vaccines, but Bart escapes. Bart eventually gets his shots, but has a temporary side effect, his ‘earholes’ swell shut…
“Sleeping with the Enemy” – third episode of Season 16 in which Milhouse has the measles.
“Milhouse of Sand and Fog” – third episode of Season 17 in which Homer has a chicken pox party for the kids in the neighborhood after Maggie gets chicken pox.
“The Fool Monty” – sixth episode of Season 22 in which everyone in town waits in line to get a vaccine for the House Cat Flu.
“The Town” – third episode of Season 28 in which after moving to Boston, Marge asks someone if they vaccinate their kids (“of course!”) to make sure that they are progressive, “but not stupid progressive.”
The Simpsons isn’t the first show to include messages about vaccines and vaccine-preventable in their episodes.
Like other TV shows, they are consistently sending a message about vaccines that is helping folks understand that vaccines work and that they are safe and necessary.
What to Know About The Simpsons and Vaccines
While some of the humor and jokes in The Simpsons are rather subtle, their message about getting vaccinated and protected against chicken pox, mumps, measles, rubella, and other vaccine preventable diseases certainly isn’t.