Chickenpox parties–just a Facebook friend away

I’ve written a few times about chickenpox parties. The first link refers to a magazine article describing the practice; the second, a few years later, about a Craigslist ad looking to hold such a party “at McDonald [sic] or some place with toys to play on.”

Clearly, as chickenpox cases have become more rare in recent decades due to the success of the chickenpox vaccine, moving toward social media to find infections is the way to go. It allows people to find such cases and expose their immunologically naive children to a serious virus, just as easily as googling Jenny McCarthy Body Count.” But now, it’s gone even farther, with parents on this Facebook page hooking up to not only find cases/parties, but also to ship contaminated samples through the mail:

Shipping any kind of microbial specimen is a huge pain in the rear, specifically because they have the potential to cause harm. Myself and any employees who do this shipping have to be specially trained, and we have to use a number of specialized shipping containers to mail samples, and take precautions to prevent any leakage etc. out of the packages. Yale has a nice overview of shipping specimens at the link–54 pages long. We also have to apply for permits to ship many of these organisms. Now, Varicella zoster (chickenpox) isn’t on their list as far as “select agents,” but secretions from a person thought to have or diagnosed with chickenpox would be considered a category B agent (moderate risk of harm):

Biological substances, such as diagnostic or clinical specimens from humans or animals that are known to harbor a pathogen or have a high probability of containing a pathogen.

How should you package these?

Triple packaging. Must pass a 1.8 meter or 4 foot drop test. Packages shipped by air must meet a 95 kPa or 14 psi pressure test of primary or secondary container.

You can see pages 10-11 of the pdf for more instructions. This isn’t as easy-peasy as “stick it in a Ziploc baggie.” These people are putting a dangerous substance in the mail with the possibility (remote, but there) of making people sick. What if your mail carrier had never had the chickenpox or the vaccine? What if s/he is immunocompromised in some way? These people are taking all the dangers of their “chickenpox parties” and putting them in the mail system. Thank you, Andrew Wakefield and Barbara Loe Fisher.

Now, to be generous, their information page has been changed since the story came out to note “ABSOLUTELY NO SENDING VIRUSES THROUGH THE MAIL. This will not be tolerated and will be deleted immediately. Local only.” However, c’mon–people still have messaging on Facebook and I doubt that’s really going to stop the determined ones. These people simply don’t care about anyone but themselves and are in denial about the fact that chickenpox can kill–the one woman who received samples didn’t even know the name of the person they were from. This is so many levels of irresponsible I don’t even know where to begin.

Finally, not surprisingly, they’re deleting any comments that run counter to their propaganda. I replied to a few comments noting that the link between chickenpox and subsequent Streptococcal infection, for example, and it was gone within 20 minutes. I also noted that both my grandmother (shingles which led to pneumonia) and an uncle I never knew (primary chickenpox followed by pneumonia when he was only a year old) died from Varicella infection. The virus isn’t a joke, and those of us who had it, like me, are at a much higher risk of developing complications via reactivation (such as shingles) than those who obtained immunity via the vaccine. I wish the vaccine had been available when I was a kid, and I am frustrated as hell that these types of “parties” still exist in the vaccine era.

[Update: at least in Tennessee, a US prosecutor is warning that these types of mailings are illegal].