I once worked with a young lady that had never had chickenpox — until the disease nearly killed her at age 26. Chickenpox has varying severity among the population, but it is generally worse the later in life it is contracted. Not long after this event, a vaccine was developed that protects against the disease. This vaccine could have saved my coworker from the severe illness and expensive treatment she endured.
But vaccines are expensive to develop. And the best way turn a profit from a vaccine is to make its use general among the population. And the best way to do that is to get states to require it for children attending public schools. This has been a tried and true marketing strategy for drug companies for a long time now.
But we used to only vaccinate children for serious diseases that killed or maimed people. How grateful we are for vaccines for polio, smallpox, mumps, measles, Pertussis, and even tetanus, etc. Prior to the introduction of vaccines, these diseases were responsible for a significant number of deaths and cases of permanent health problems.
But chickenpox isn’t like that. Prior to vaccination becoming general, there were fewer than 100 deaths per year from the disease, with about 4 million cases per year. That’s a death rate of less than 0.04%. Most of those deaths were among adults. And while a few people experienced some permanent scarring, it was relatively minor and largely did not impact quality of life. In other words, the disease is a relatively mild disease, especially for children.
The ideal use of the chickenpox vaccine is for adults that have not naturally contracted the disease. But, since the development of the vaccine, drug company lobbyists have been successful in getting 41 states to require the vaccine in schoolchildren. My oldest three children contracted the disease naturally. My youngest two have been vaccinated for it.
Why did we allow this vaccine to become required for children? I believe that this has little to do with the welfare of the children. Instead, it has more to do with the changes in marriage practices and in adult employment. With the explosion of single-parent homes and the expansion of mothers of young children working full time, most young children have all of their available parents working. They are left to hired caregivers while their parents earn money. When having a built-in caregiver was more common, chickenpox was an inconvenience. But today it means the loss of a couple of weeks of income.
The length of the vaccine’s effectiveness has always been a question. Such is always the case when a new vaccine is introduced, until sufficient time has passed for experience to show the answer. A recent study shows that the vaccine begins to lose effectiveness after a few years. Conveniently for drug makers, this means that children need a booster shot between the ages of four and six. Although they still don’t know how effective the vaccine remains as children pass into adulthood, it is probably a good idea for those that have not had the disease to get booster shots as adolescents and as adults. Perhaps booster shots will be needed throughout life.
Although it was quite predictable, an unintended side effect of requiring children to be vaccinated for chickenpox is that the older children that have contracted the disease (as vaccine effectiveness has waned) have much more serious symptoms. Many young adults just getting out on their own neglect their own vaccinations. I predict that as our vaccinated children become adults we will see an expansion of the disease among young adults and that symptoms will be far more serious, even life threatening for some. Don’t be surprised a few years from now when there are far more than 100 deaths per year from chickenpox. I’m no medical expert or epidemiologist, but this seems to be a common sense forecast.
We should keep all of this in mind as we debate any governmental infringement on personal liberties. We should keep it in mind as we debate requiring schoolgirls to be vaccinated for cervical cancer. And we should definitely keep this in mind anytime anyone waves around the oldie but goodie claim that a regulation is primarily for the benefit of the children. If we had truly been concerned about the welfare of the children, we would have refused to require them to be vaccinated for chickenpox.