Disease parties

Some parents in Britain are deliberately exposing their children to kids with contagious illnesses.

Published October 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Will you please pass the measles? Or how about a dash of rubella or a pinch of the mumps?

Some parents in Britain have come up with a whole new reason to party -- they're holding special get-togethers to get their children sick.

According to a BBC report, British parents are holding "disease parties," deliberately exposing their otherwise healthy kids to other children with contagious diseases. They have not replaced birthday parties in popularity. But Magda Taylor, head of the Informed Parent, a British group concerned about the
safety of vaccinations, says dozens of parents around the country are taking part in the fetes. Since they live all over, the parents have to be highly organized to get everyone together before -- gasp -- the child gets better.

Typically, this is how it works: A parent signs up as a member of a local network, and when one of the children in the network gets sick, the party call goes out to all parents. The ones who want to infect their child with the disease du jour show up at the appointed hour at the host's home.

But why would parents do such a thing?

"They want their children to gain immunity naturally," says Taylor. "They believe that vaccinations weaken the child's immune system," allowing a whole slew of other infections to move in.

Taylor plays down the "party" label, insisting that the get-togethers are not your typical boozy bashes, but serious gatherings where the sole aim is to infect the kids.

Disease parties first became fashionable a century ago, in the era before mass vaccinations, but they have made a comeback because of recent concerns over childhood immunizations. "There is a growing number of parents who feel that natural immunity is preferable to immunization," Taylor explains.

"That's just nuts," says Dr. David Tunkel, director of pediatric otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. "Vaccines are one of the great advancements of this century. Horrendous diseases have been wiped out." So are any parents on this side of the Atlantic holding disease parties? "I never heard of anything like that," Tunkel says.

But Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine Information Center in Vienna, Va., has heard rumors of chicken-pox parties in this country. "People want a choice," she says.

While the idea of a disease party may sound ridiculous, parents' concerns over vaccinations aren't completely unfounded. A 1996 study published in the journal Clinical Immunology found that the measles vaccination "produces immune suppression which contributes to an increased susceptibility to other infections."

Immunization rates in this country reached an all-time high in 1998, when the overall rate for preschool children hit 80 percent, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "This new report serves as a reminder that vaccines work -- they are cost-effective tools to prevent disease," said Donna Shalala, U.S. secretary of health and human services.

Cost-effective, maybe, but are vaccines always safe? In a February 1998 study published in the Lancet, British researchers led by Dr. Andrew Wakefield and colleagues from the Royal Free Hospital announced a possible link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and a new syndrome of chronic inflammatory bowel disease and autism. (A subsequent study by Finland researchers, however, found no such link.)

The immunization-autism link is also under investigation in this country. Last month, researchers at the MIND Institute of the University of California-Davis launched a new study to examine the recent rise of autism in California. "Parents have expressed concern about the vaccines their autistic children received during infancy and have anecdotal evidence that links autism to the scheduling of vaccinations," said Dr. Robert Byrd, a member of the research team.

Still, the American Academy of Pediatrics continues to endorse childhood immunizations, and most parents in the United States line their babies up for the shots without a second thought.

However, when it comes to disease parties, Jane Kelly, mother of a recently immunized 3-month-old, finds the very idea, well, sickening. "I just think it's dangerous to take matters into your own hands when you don't have the medical education."

By Jon Bowen

Jon Bowen is a frequent contributor to Salon.


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