“A healthy bout of chickenpox”

There has been, and I hope there will continue to be, much written across new and old media about the risks of not vaccinating children and about the tide of misinformation about those risks.

Whilst reading the arguments and counter arguments, I often hear the suggestion that some of these childhood disease are “harmless”, such as in the recent book Melanie’s Marvellous Measles and in this passage from Jayne Donegan, the controversial GP and friend of Andrew Wakefield:

If you look carefully at children after they have been supportively nursed through an infectious disease, you will always see them do something new, depending upon their age and circumstances. An infant may produce a tooth; a toddler who kept banging into things will walk confidently; a six-year old who is not reading will suddenly start to read. It is rather like a snake that has to crack off the old skin before it can grow, children go through these crises of self cleaning before they can move on to the next step. I have often seen children with endless snot or lots of warts have both of these cleared by a healthy bout of chicken pox. Such infectious diseases do not improve the population, in the harsh Darwinian view of things, by killing off the weak and leaving only the strong ones to reproduce; they actually give each individual child the opportunity to strengthen their own individual immune system and make the best of what they have.

Whilst 16 weeks pregnant with my younger sister Jenny, my Mum caught chickenpox (I’d picked it up from a party and passed it on). Following Jenny’s birth it quickly became apparent to my parents that something wasn’t right. Over the next couple of years my parents spent countless hours in hospital waiting rooms and Jenny was subjected to test after test.

We now know that between 12 and 28 weeks of pregnancy there is a 1.4% chance that chickenpox in the mother would cause Fetal Variella Syndrome (FVS). That Jenny’s GP at the time was unaware of this and that Jenny’s problems took so long to be diagnosed caused much frustration and distress and are, perhaps, a separate issue.

Jenny at Cropredy
Jenny at Cropredy

The FVS had disrupted Jenny’s brain and eye development. She has large calcium deposits particularly in the left side of her brain. This has caused a myriad of issues, most notably a hemiplegia (basically cerebral palsy on one side of the body), severe learning difficulties, and she is has cortical blindness in her left eye and limited vision in her right.

Despite her problems she is basically a happy soul and her pure joy whilst dancing at a folk concert is a sight to behold. However, Jenny will never be an independent person, never get a job, or achieve the milestones that most of look forward to in our lives. She will never be able to make a decision for herself about her future.

The issues around deciding when, and where, vaccines are appropriate are complicated and I don’t write this as a call for any change to policy. Decisions in public health shouldn’t be made on the basis of testimonials, but I would strongly argue against dismissing these diseases as ‘harmless’ when they can, and do, cause death and severe disability. Complications from chickenpox are rare, deaths are thankfully even rarer, but for Jenny and my family the complication rate is 100%.

Jenny & me
Jenny & me

21 thoughts on ““A healthy bout of chickenpox”

  1. Thanks for sharing this Susan. As you say, health care should be not be based on testimonials, but on scientific evidence; however in a world where many people give more credence to testimonials than evidence it’s good to be able to point to testimonials as to how vaccine-preventable diseases cause the sorts of harms that anti-vaxxers like Donegan claim don’t happen.

    One point I think you’re wrong about: the current whooping cough outbreak is not attributed (at least in the BBC article you reference) low vaccination rates: the article says

    There are surges in whooping cough cases every three to four years. … Health experts do not know why the outbreak is so large this year, especially as vaccination for whooping cough is at record levels. One theory is that the bacterium which causes the infection, Bordetella pertussis, has mutated. Another idea is that tight control of whooping cough is part of the problem. Repeated infections of whooping cough used to naturally boost people’s immune systems. However, after years of low levels of whooping cough the whole population may be more vulnerable to the infection.

    Sadly this seems to play to the conviction of the more rabid anti-vaxxers that if any vaccine is less than 101% effective with 0% side-effects it must mean that every vaccine is 0% effective with 100% terrible side-effects from autism to acne. I suspect that no amount of science, reason or critical thinking can challenge what amounts to a religious conviction in such beliefs, but maybe the testimonials they seem to love so much have some sway?

    1. The HPA tell us we have the highest vaccine coverage for whooping cough for decades and the highest number of cases. That means the vaccine doesn’t work. Theories about this don’t seem to be supported by any science, only theories. The US has the same problem with a 96% coverage and acknowledgment that this has nothing to do with non vaccinated affecting the ‘herd immunity’ issue either because the CDC tell us fully vaccinated people are getting whooping cough too.

  2. Risk of fetal varicella syndrome if maternal chickenpox:
    risk of the syndrome in children exposed to chickenpox in utero is around 0.5% if maternal chickenpox develops at 2-12 weeks of pregnancy
    1.4% if it develops at 12-28 weeks
    0% if it develops from 28 weeks onwards
    overall risk in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy is 0.91%
    Reference:
    Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin 2005; 43(12): 94-95.

    Any disability from illness is a tragedy but this is only part of the story. It is well known that the reason older people are getting chicken pox is because of the vaccination of children is effectively displacing the condition to an older cohort. Chicken pox was a children’s condition before vaccination came in and now it is well recognized that older people are also getting far more shingles outbreaks because of it too.

    The mother illustrated here may well have got chicken pox because of the vaccination/displacement for chicken pox rather than in spite of it. The stats from this Drug and therapeutics bulletin you posted show that by far the risks of actually getting the fetal condition are overall almost 99%+ not likely so I am totally empathetic with the tragedy part of the story here but the science attempt to link it to non vaccination is just not there.

    If we add the risks of the vaccination to the picture there is no scientific reason to do it at all.

  3. We also have no data about how this mother was managed during her condition or whether or not she had been vaccinated prior to as a child or given it when she was carry child. There is too much missing from this tragic story to draw any conclusions really.

    1. This is explicitly not a call for chicken pox vaccine – I leave those with expertise in these subjects to make those decisions. I’m well aware that a single testimony is in no way ‘evidence’ for anything. My intention is to explain why my experience means I feel very strongly that ‘harmless’ is an inappropriate term. As I am not suggesting that vaccination would have prevented this, or that even if it would have that is reason enough for mass vaccination. I didn’t, and don’t, believe additional medical details are useful. The only link I draw is that the only places I’ve seen the term ‘harmless’ used in this way has been in anti-vaccination material. I hope this clarifies my position.

      1. im glad i came across this. I too do no not feel my own experiences cause for a change in vaccines but my 9 month old son died on the 26th April 2013 of chicken pox. i took him to hospital as he was very very poorly and i was dismissed as being an over concerned parent as he only had the “harmless” chicken pox virus. I had to fight tooth and nail for him to be kept in over night and as it was midnight when we arrived they agreed but had already written his discharge notes out. 4 hours later he died in his sleep and no nurse had even came to check on him. not everyone has textbook reactions to these infections and need to all be evaluated individually and insted of coming under the “harmless” title.

  4. “Sadly this seems to play to the conviction of the more rabid anti-vaxxers that if any vaccine is less than 101% effective with 0% side-effects it must mean that every vaccine is 0% effective with 100% terrible side-effects from autism to acne. I suspect that no amount of science, reason or critical thinking can challenge what amounts to a religious conviction in such beliefs, but maybe the testimonials they seem to love so much have some sway?” Susan wrote this.

    There is no clear point in your reasoning at all. There is no science at all to link your implications that ‘rabid antivaxxers’ are somehow at fault. It is an appeal to emotion and unlikely to make anyone see vaccination as anything but some quasi religious idea. In fact in the recent outbreaks of whooping cough both the CDC and HPA tell us we have the highest vaccine coverage for years coinciding with the highest outbreaks in vaccinated populations with the US 97% uptake! The CDC is clear non vaccinating are not a factor, the vaccine doesn’t work. If that is the case it is illogical to both take it because risk has no benefit.

    No amount of science or critical reasoning is present with flu vaccine theorists either, look at what the BMJ says about the woo of flu vaccines, anti virals, it is compelling reading Susan, did you have a flu jab because you believed the hype or did you look at the science?

    http://www.bmj.com/tamiflu

    http://www.bmj.com/content/339/bmj.b5106

    What about all those kids who now have narcolepsy after the flu jab Susan, the evidence is compelling but the CDC still tell us the best way to protect is to vaccinate? Who is right with your ‘experts know best theory’ the CDC or the BMJ.
    The 96 season Cochraine review on flu vaccination concluded that the ‘evidence for efficacy was implausible at best’.

    I would conclude that you are either a vaccine believer or not, your accusations of rabid antivaxxers display a very unhealthy unscientific stance that is quite frankly illogical. If I lived anywhere near your meetings I’d love to point this out in person.

    1. That wasn’t a quote from me. I didn’t have a flu jab because I’m young and healthy and it hasn’t been recommended for me. If it was, and I felt the evidence agreed with that recommendation I would do. I have had a number of other vaccination’s through childhood and more recently.

  5. ” The only link I draw is that the only places I’ve seen the term ‘harmless’ used in this way has been in anti-vaccination material” Susan said

    Well you don’t look very far, Paul Offit says that mercury is harmless in a vaccine!

  6. “however in a world where many people give more credence to testimonials than evidence it’s good to be able to point to testimonials as to how vaccine-preventable diseases cause the sorts of harms that anti-vaxxers like Donegan claim don’t happen.” John Stumbles

    On whooping cough vaccine not working and CDC and HPA saying it is no anti vaxxers:

    “Sadly this seems to play to the conviction of the more rabid anti-vaxxers that if any vaccine is less than 101% effective with 0% side-effects it must mean that every vaccine is 0% effective with 100% terrible side-effects from autism to acne. I suspect that no amount of science, reason or critical thinking can challenge what amounts to a religious conviction in such beliefs, but maybe the testimonials they seem to love so much have some sway?” John Stumbles

    The problem is John that vaccination has more testimonials in its favour than science but when we divide the discussion into pro and anti this is what happens. According to NHS testimonial flu vaccine halves winter deaths, according to the Cochraine review (science) on flu vaccine, flu like, not even confirmed, winter deaths only accounts for 10% so to have a 50% effect on flu death rates the flu vaccine would have to impact on road traffic accidents.

    The reason whooping cough is happening is because vaccination don’t work, it has nothing to do with as you call it the ‘rabid antivaxxer’. We now know flu vaccination and antivirals are useless and dangerous, we also know whooping cough vaccine is a fraud and the list is longer than two. If we look at the Polio disaster in India caused by the vaccine I could be here all night. But still there is a small group of ‘volunteer septic campaigners’ obsessed with polarising vaccination debates and keeping this outdated practice alive because they have bought into a pro anti argument and have disabled the science discussion, this is religious behavior and in some way explains the rabid banning of anyone who points it out on blogs!

    Unless the septic movement gets with the science all it will ever do is rant to its followers whilst the world moves on. No one in my family from the dog upwards has had a vaccine because we looked at the science and the science said it was bullshit.

  7. Well Susan, it would seem you have septic conversion syndrome, banning the posts of those who show up the fallacies and straw bales in your attempt at pseudo science.
    May the Singh be with you and may your friends pray too.

  8. Did anyone ask that poor girl in this blog article if she minded being trolled out for the convenience of others? Or did you just assume it was ok to use someone like this to make such a fallacious point because she was unable to understand or protest, but that is what medical science does, all those Indian vaccine trials.
    The means justifies………………………and you are part of this rich tapestry of crap.

    1. I was telling the story of what happened to my family. I checked with everybody that it was relevant too that they were happy. I don’t present this as evidence of anything other than the possible harm caused buy the chicken pox virus. I’d like more people to be aware so they can avoid, if possible, coming into contact whilst pregnant.

      1. “I don’t present this as evidence of anything other than the possible harm caused buy the chicken pox virus. I’d like more people to be aware so they can avoid, if possible, coming into contact whilst pregnant.” Susan proposed this pseudo science.

        But by your own stats the chances of chicken pox danger are less than 0.5%! What is scientific about that exactly? Surely you should be asking for the studies on the 99…% that are not devastated by this disease, the answer must lay with them, not guessing at vaccine woo.

  9. The problem here is you assume that not having the ‘disease’ has no consequence, because you believe that vaccination works to prevent something bad.

    Aberdeen University did a 30 year study on a cohort of people to see what that group suffered from over this period. Lots of interesting things came up here is one of them. ‘All the children who had wild measles as a child invariably did not go on to develop any atopic diseases as an adult’.

    There is research published in medical peer reviewed journals supporting this observation. When I was a child no one in my school had asthma, now every class has a shoebox full of inhalers and nut allergy is everywhere, I don’t remember anyone having this disabling and life threatening condition when I was at school either. No one I know at that time had the MMR either.

    One medical peer reviewed paper even went as far to say ‘If we are to choose between measles and atopy who should decide, the individual or society? Another says that measles seems to protect against atopy, the correlations in explosions in atopic pathway illnesses and measles vaccination are there to see.

    Often advocates of vaccination say ‘a few will suffer for the benefit of the many’, this is supposed to be ok on this side of the fence, this was known as the Bolam principle, it has now been superseded by the Asfar ruling on informed consent. How would you feel if I applied that in your case, ie less than 1% of people who develop chicken pox whilst pregnant will have problems but most benefit? I have seen remarkable improvement in CP cases in kids after chicken pox and the resolution of atopy too. I have seen autistic kids turn round after chicken pox, would you deny that opportunity, misquoting Jayne Donagen is not an evidence based position, it is one of religious dogma. You need to go to a talk by her, look at what she presented to the high court as an expert witness and won her case against the GMC on vaccine efficacy in 2009. Jayne was pro vaccine before this, reviewing the ‘evidence’ changed her mind. So from an EBM perspective the latest tested evidence is that there is no efficacy evidence for any childhood vaccine on the current schedule and that is supported by a high court ruling. Pro and anti vaxx is a total diversion and non scientific.

    The septic community is so in the dark ages on this, let’s put our polemical postion on hold, I really hear you want to do something positive here and I am spending time against the flow to try and point you to a better place. Dump the anti pro stance, go to a talk by Jayne and listen, bring up any argument you like and listen to her compelling position, it is so informed you will be hard pushed to not engage with it.

    The last talk Jayne did was picketed by a group of flat earthers from the ‘nonsense about science’ group, they were invited in to listen but stayed outside handing out leaflets like the Jehovah’s witness.

    I kind of feel here that you might not be another septic copycat religious person but open to looking at a controversial view and listening.

    The choice is yours

  10. “And just 60 years ago, polio paralyzed 16,000 Americans every year” Copyright 1994-2012 Robert T. Carroll *
    Just had a look at your link to vaccine misinformation and Carroll’s site reads like some science denial site.
    Does he know about Bill Gate’s variant polio that has paralysed 47,500 people in India last year, it’s the new black in Polio reclassification. It’s called Non Polio Flaccid Paralysis and only occurs in those given Bill’s vaccine. It is clinically indistinguishable from Polio and twice as deadly as wild Polio but because you have had the vaccine someone decided it can’t be called Polio!

    Carroll is not only out of date he is spreading misinformation, what kind of science is that! It is bringing your blog into woo. Why does the septic movement claim some kind of science viewpoint on vaccines when it ignores the basic facts that they don’t work?

    “In 1976, Dr. Jonas Salk, creator of the killed-virus vaccine used in the 1950s, testified that the live-virus vaccine (used almost exclusively in the U.S. from the early 1960s to 2000) was the ‘principal if not sole cause’ of all reported polio cases in the U.S. since 1961”

  11. I so wish I lived in your town, attending a pub meeting would put me in stitches! I cannot believe you guys are serious! and I thought homeopathy was bonkers!

  12. Maybe we should petition to put all those pictures of kids with Bill Gate’s vaccine polio on your site to put some balance in your appeal to emotion?

  13. Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m here on a link, and this is really valuable. With the advent of vaccinations so many people forget that the “harmless childhood diseases” have real and tragic consequences. Good reminder.

    Sorry that your story seems to have brought the crazies out in droves!

    1. Zantheie whatever, your post demonstrates vaccine believer syndrome of the highest order, well done.

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