In the days before a vaccine for chicken pox became widely available, some parents would host "chicken pox parties" amidst an outbreak to try to ensure that their kids wouldn't be left out of the wave of infections. The thinking was that chicken pox was a mild disease for kids but worse for adults, and catching it early would provide a lifetime of natural immunity.
Now the idea of "chicken pox parties" is back — but this time, it's for COVID-19. The omicron variant seems less dangerous than earlier versions of the coronavirus and harder for kids to avoid now that they're back in school, so why not get it out of the way?
The Times posed this question to four COVID-19 experts, three of whom are also pediatricians who specialize in infectious diseases.
While they expressed sympathy for parents frazzled by the seemingly endless pandemic, they all said there's no real upside to exposing your child to the omicron variant — and plenty of potential downsides.
The notion of deliberately trying to catch an infectious disease "is not 21st century thinking, it's not 20th century thinking, it's 19th century thinking," said Dr. James T. McDeavitt, dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
There was some wisdom in the strategy of yore, and that helps explain why people might want to go that route again with the coronavirus (especially parents who remember attending chicken pox parties as children). But the parallels between then and now are weak, as are the possible rationales for seeking out the omicron variant.
Is the omicron variant mild?
McDeavitt said omicron tends to be mild in children, "but sometimes it's not."
Dr. Dean A. Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children's Hospital, said that of the more than 7 million pediatric cases of COVID-19 in the United States since the start of the pandemic, more than 29,000 have resulted in hospitalizations and more than 1,000 were fatal. So while damaging complications aren't common, he said, "you're basically rolling the dice and hoping your child doesn't have one of these severe outcomes."
Dr. Aaron M. Milstone, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, noted that infections are especially risky for children who haven't gotten their COVID-19 shots.