Would you deliberately infect your kids with chickenpox by taking them to “pox parties”?

It sounds like a plot line from The Simpsons. In fact, it is a plot line from The Simpsons. Who else but America's favorite dunderhead, Homer Simpson, would do such a thing?

Surprisingly, pox parties are popping up in neighborhoods in several U.S. cities. On Internet bulletin boards and blogs, rumors spread that the chickenpox vaccine is somehow unsafe or ineffective. Parents worried by these rumors join email rings. When one of these parents' children gets chickenpox, the parents invite others in the community to a pox party.

But doctors warn against this practice. A safe and effective chickenpox vaccine is part of the recommended childhood vaccination series. It keeps 85 percent of vaccinated kids from ever getting the illness, says chickenpox virus expert Anne A. Gershon, MD, director of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at New York's Columbia University.

"In a time when we have the chickenpox vaccine available -- one of the safest vaccines we have ever had, and one that works very well -- there is no point in exposing your child to the natural infection," Gershon tells WebMD.

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A Dangerous Recipe

A "natural mothering" web site gives a recipe for spreading varicella zoster virus -- the chickenpox germ. It advises parents to pass a whistle from the infected child to other children.

"It is absolute lunacy," UCLA infectious disease specialist Peter Katona, MD, tells WebMD.

Adults who get chickenpox for the first time get a much more serious disease than do children. But even for children, chickenpox isn't a walk in the park. And every once in a while, a child gets a very serious form of the disease. One in 50,000 kids gets a brain infection that causes retardation or death. And itchy chickenpox blisters can get infected with dangerous bacteria.

"Imagine losing a child because you were dumb enough to bring him to a pox party," Gershon says.

Gershon, in fact, favors giving kids a second chickenpox vaccination. That, she says, would ensure that virtually all kids would safely develop immunity. And it would prevent waning immunity after a first shot, which sometimes happens in the 15% of kids who don't get full immunity from the recommended vaccination at age 12-15 months.

There's another reason for kids to get the chickenpox vaccine: shingles. Chickenpox virus is a herpes virus that stays in the body for life. When it gets reactivated, a person gets shingles. Sometimes this causes a very painful condition called postherpetic neuralgia -- a condition that may be permanent.

A growing body of evidence, Gershon says, suggests that childhood chickenpox vaccination prevents adult shingles.

If you've already had chickenpox, there's still hope. A new, high-dose chickenpox vaccine shows promise for preventing shingles in the elderly.

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By Daniel J. DeNoon, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Anne A. Gershon, MD, director, division of pediatric infectious diseases; professor of pediatrics, Columbia University, New York. Peter Katona, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine, UCLA. Mothering: The Magazine of Natural Family Living web site. Fox: The Simpsons, "Milhouse of Sand & Fog," Sept. 25, 2005.