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Kentucky governor says he deliberately exposed his kids to chickenpox

Doctors say it's a bad idea to expose an unvaccinated child to the Varicella-zoster virus.
Image: Matt Bevin
Kentucky governor Matt Bevin said he exposed his kids to chickenpox and they turned out fine. But doctors warn that the virus can be dangerous and "there's no reason to get sick." AP
/ Source: TODAY

While many 90s trends are making a comeback there is one that doctors want to stay in the past: Chickenpox parties.

Kentucky governor Matt Bevin recently revealed that when a neighbor developed chickenpox, he intentionally exposed his nine unvaccinated children to his neighbor, so his children would develop it, too.

"They were miserable for a few days, and they all turned out fine,” Bevin told WKCT, a talk radio station in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

He added that he isn't sure if the government should require children to receive the chickenpox vaccine, but said parents worried about their children getting the virus should seek out the vaccine.

Bevin's admission is the most recent case of someone acknowledging attendance at pox parties, which were popular before the introduction of the chickenpox vaccine, Varicella, more than 20 years ago. In October, Denver station KUSA 9News reported that a few private Facebook parenting groups in Colorado have been sharing information about parties. The NBC station received screenshots of anonymous social media posts where parents explained how to spread the virus intentionally to unvaccinated children by exposing them to infected kids.

In one post a mother said she has been “swamped with requests to have my daughter ‘share chicken pox.’” Another post provides detailed instructions to help parents make sure their children catch chickenpox, such as sharing snack bowls.

Experts say that receiving a chickenpox vaccine is much safer than going to a chickenpox party.Courtesy KUSA 9 News

TODAY reached out to the Facebook parenting groups sharing the information, but didn't get a response. There's no indication that chickenpox infections are on the rise across the U.S. and most kids do get all of their shots, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Bevin's comments come at a time when a growing number of children in the U.S. are not vaccinated for any disease.

What causes chickenpox?

Chickenpox is highly contagious and can be dangerous. It's spread by touching the skin blisters caused by the Varicella-zoster virus or by breathing in tiny droplets when an infected person talks or exhales.

“People used to die of chickenpox. It is not completely benign,” Dr. Tanaya Bhowmick, an assistant professor of medicine at Robert Wood Johnston Medical School, told TODAY.

A recent report in the Journal of Pediatrics found that an 11-month-old who caught chickenpox from his older siblings suffered a stroke from it. According to the CDC, over 3.5 million cases of chickenpox, 9,000 hospitalizations and 100 deaths are prevented by the vaccine.

Exposing a child to the full-strength virus creates a "far greater risk of more serious side effects," Dr. Neel Shah, an infectious disease doctor at UPMC in Pittsburgh, told TODAY. "With chickenpox you can get anything from a severe skin rash to meningitis to brain inflammation.”

How to avoid chickenpox

That's why doctors agree that parents should vaccinate their children against chickenpox rather than allow them to catch the infection.

The vaccine has few, if any, side effects. Most people feel some soreness at the injection site and, in rare cases, people will develop a much milder strain of chickenpox. The vaccine is attenuated, which means it is a weakened form of a live virus, and children receive it in two shots. They get one dose when they’re between 12 and 15 months and a second dose between 4 to 6 years of age. But even older children can also receive the vaccination.

Many parents experienced chickenpox and remember them as an annoyance. This might cause them to think that it’s OK if their children aren’t vaccinated and develop them naturally. But the experts say that it's too risky.

“There is no reason to get sick,” Bhowmick said.

And, getting vaccinated prevents people from spreading to people with weakened immune systems or children to young to be vaccinated.

“If you get the vaccine you are not passing it on to anyone else,” Bhowmick said.

Being vaccinated against chickenpox also protects many people from developing shingles, a painful flare-up of Varicella-zoster virus. When people have chickenpox it remains dormant in the nerve-endings and can be activated in adulthood. Instead of being a full-body rash, shingles normally cluster in one area and cause a great deal of pain and other complications.

“Because it is reactivating through the nerve it creates that nerve-based pain,” Shah explained.

And not only can shingles be excruciatingly painful, it can raise the risk of heart attack and stroke.

The bottom line?

"There is no doubt in my mind that the vaccine is better than getting the actual infection," Bhowmick said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story