Tuesday, May 17th, 2016, started off like most days for me:  An early morning chavrusa, followed by davening and then returning home to see the kids before they left for school, eat breakfast, and catch up on the news.  And there it was — another news story featuring Orthodox Jews in a negative light.  The topic:  New York City health officials investigating a chicken pox outbreak in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn that has infected over 75 children so far.  According to officials, nearly three-quarters of these kids, ranging from infants to children up to 10 years old, had not been vaccinated against the disease.  As a pediatrician on the front lines of primary care, it still boggles my mind that parents in the 21st century will not inoculate their children against childhood diseases.

Let’s go back several decades to when I was a child and there wasn’t yet a vaccine for chicken pox.  Chicken pox is also known as “varicella” as it’s caused by an initial infection of the varicella zoster virus (VZV).  Not uncommonly, parents would encourage their healthy child to spend time with a child sick with the highly contagious and uncomfortable disease that is characterized by a rash which is followed by itchy, red, fluid-filled blisters that appear all over the body.  Eventually, the blisters turn into scabs.  It usually shows up on the face, chest, and back and then spreads to the rest of the body.  Generally, it’s accompanied by fever, fatigue and loss of appetite.  Yes, chicken pox can leave nasty scars.  It can also be fatal.

At one time, chicken pox was common in the United States.  It affected about 4 million people annually.  Over 10,000 people were hospitalized because of chicken pox, and about 150 people died each year from its complications.

Why did parents calculatedly expose their children to chicken pox?  The theory was that chicken pox was so rampant, just expose your child to it, and get the disease over and done with.  Unfortunately, that’s not quite factual because once a person has chicken pox, the varicella virus remains in the body and can cause shingles in adults.  Shingles is a painful rash that can affect vision or hearing and remain with a person for years.  Further, the shingles virus can be passed to someone who has never had chickenpox. The virus spreads through direct contact with the rash, and cannot spread through the air.  Unfortunately, there’s no cure for shingles. I won’t discuss here the pneumonia, secondary skin infections and central nervous system problems that can result from chicken pox.

Think about the repercussions of the havoc which chicken pox wreaks.  First, sick children miss upwards of one week of school.  A parent caring for a sick child misses work.  Further, the incubation period of chicken pox is 14-16 days, with a range of 10-21 days.  A child exposed to chicken pox can be walking around for days, even travelling in airplanes with circulating non-fresh air.  This means that babies under 1 year of age and still too young for the varicella vaccine, pregnant women who’ve never had chicken pox, and people with compromised immune systems are at risk.

Thankfully, medicine has moved forward by leaps-and-bounds and chicken pox is easily preventable.  Today, we enjoy the varicella vaccine which has all but eradicated chicken pox.  The varicella vaccine is given in 2 doses, the first at ages 12 through 15 months and the second at 4 through 6 years.  Yes, there are rare cases when children have been inoculated with the vaccine yet will contract chicken pox.  This is the rare exception rather than the rule and when it happens, the symptoms are usually mild, meaning fewer blisters, little or no fever, and quicker recovery.

Also, when you get vaccinated, you protect others in your community. This is especially important for people who cannot get vaccinated, such as pregnant women.  I shudder to think that there are pediatric waiting rooms where nonvaccinated children comingle with babies and children who are not yet vaccinated.

This is a call to action that we vaccinate our children against preventable diseases.  

Make sure your children’s vaccines are current.  Pain, suffering, missing school, missing work – It’s just not worth it.  Imagine all the lost productivity being channeled into something for we can be known positively as a Light unto the Nations.

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