NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Parents fearful of vaccinations are being warned by a federal prosecutor that making a deal with a stranger who promises to mail them lollipops licked by children with chickenpox isn't just a bad idea, it's against the law.
Jerry Martin, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, said he was spurred by reports this week by KPHO-TV in Phoenix and WSMV-TV in Nashville about people turning to Facebook to find lollipops, spit or other items from children who have chickenpox.
"Can you imagine getting a package in the mail from this complete stranger that you know from Facebook because you joined a group, and say here, drink this purported spit from some other kid?" Martin told The Associated Press.
Isaac Thomsen, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, said it's unlikely the items will succeed in giving other children chickenpox.
"If there's a very high load on the virus and shipped very quickly, it's theoretically possible," he said. "But it's probably not an effective way to transmit it. It typically has to be inhaled."
But Thomsen warned the lollipops could carry more dangerous viruses, including hepatitis.
Martin said it is a federal crime to send diseases or viruses across state lines, whether through the U.S. Postal Service or private services like FedEx or UPS. Sending the lollipops would be illegal under the same law that makes it illegal to mail contagions like anthrax. He said a conviction could lead to a sentence from less than a year to 20 years in prison.
Martin said the items are sought by parents who don't want to give their children vaccines. He said he could neither confirm nor deny that his office is investigating or seeking charges against anyone.
According to the TV reports, parents have turned to a Facebook group called "Find a Pox Party in Your Area" to link up people looking to share the virus.
One of the Facebook postings from Wendy Werkit of Nashville offered a "fresh batch of pox in Nashville shipping of suckers, spit and Q-tips available tomorrow 50 dollars via PayPal."
Werkit told WSMV that the money was used to cover the shipping costs of the lollipops had been licked by her children.
"They can't get (chickenpox) the normal way anymore of just naturally catching and just naturally getting the immunity for life," Werkit said.
Thomsen, the Vanderbilt physician, said he was even more concerned by a person in the KPHO report seeking items tainted with measles to avoid a school-required vaccination. Measles has a significant mortality rate, causes more complications and is very infectious compared with chickenpox, he said.
And law enforcement won't take any such cases lightly, Martin said.
"If you are engaged in this type of behavior, you're not only potentially exposing innocent people to dangerous viruses and illnesses and diseases, you're also exposing yourself potentially to federal criminal prosecution," he said.