By Sandy Alexander
WASHINGTON – As chairwoman of the Maryland PTA’s Safety and Environmental Committee, Lisa Breece supports the association’s position that mandatory chickenpox vaccines for children will help create a healthy school environment.
But as a mother of two, Breece is glad her children developed immunity “the old fashioned way,” by putting up with a few days if itching rather than receiving more shots.
“It makes sense to me to let them catch it,” she said. “It’s just chickenpox.”
It’s not “just chickenpox” to Maryland health officials. Beginning Sept. 1, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will require that children be vaccinated for chickenpox and Hepatitis B in order to enroll in pre- kindergarten school programs.
The requirement will be expanded each year to include another grade level, starting with kindergartners in 2001. It is already necessary for enrollment in day care programs, and children who do not comply can be turned away.
Chickenpox is highly contagious, affecting 90 percent of Americans by their early 20s, according to the Maryland Community and Public Health Administration. It is characterized by an itchy rash and often accompanied by fever and fatigue. It is not life-threatening for otherwise healthy children, but it can be dangerous, and even deadly for newborns, adults and people with leukemia or weak immune systems.
Greg K. Reed, assistant chief at Maryland’s Center for Immunization, said he feels “very strongly” that aggressive use of the vaccine will have a “tremendous impact in reducing the number of hospitalizations, illnesses and missed days of work” to care for sick children.
But, for some parents, side effects of the vaccine are still too common compared to what they see as a relatively mild disease.
“I don’t like putting things into my kids’ bodies that don’t need to be,” said Stacey Barkley, a Lusby mother of two daughters.
The federal Centers for Disease Control reported that in one study of 8,900 healthy children between 1 and 12 who were vaccinated, 14.7 percent developed a fever, 19.3 percent complained of pain or redness at the injection site and 3.8 percent developed a chickenpox rash.
During the first year of vaccinations, about 21 cases of serious illness were reported within six weeks of the shot, but the CDC has not concluded if the vaccine caused the sickness. It reported a “minimal” risk that vaccinated children will pass the virus on to others.
While the CDC reported that the vaccine has proven effective for at least 10 years, catching chickenpox gives a person lifetime immunity to the virus. If immunization from the vaccine does wear off, adolescents and adults may find themselves susceptible at an age when the disease can be much more dangerous.
There is also a fear that children who are vaccinated may be susceptible to shingles, a painful skin condition caused by the same virus, when they grow older.
After only five years of widespread use in this country, local and national advocates are concerned that too much is still unknown.
“Largely, parents are unaware” of arguments against vaccination, said Amanda Buxbaum, director of Vaccine Information and Action in Maryland.
The group opposes mandatory vaccinations, and wants to let parents know that there are exceptions for children with doctor-verified medical reasons to avoid the vaccine, and for families that have religious objections.
Barkley said she was “leery at first,” because the vaccine was so new, but decided to let her daughters get the vaccine after talking to her doctor. In particular, she thought that if most other children were vaccinated, it would be difficult for her daughters to catch the illness and develop a natural immunity until later in life, when it can be more dangerous.
The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that the vaccine was 70 to 90 percent effective at preventing the illness altogether in clinical trials and 95 percent effective in preventing severe outbreaks. The academy and the CDC have recommended routine vaccinations for children over 1, and say it is also effective for adolescents and adults.
Reed said specific vaccination numbers are unavailable for Maryland, but he believes that doctors are encouraging, and parents are widely accepting, the vaccine. He noted that chickenpox vaccine is being distributed to low-income families through the state’s Vaccines for Children program at the same rate as vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella.
Barkley said she is not opposed to vaccination, as long as the decision is up to the parents, not mandated by the health department. She said she would wonder “why are they making me do this.”
“It should be my choice,” she said.