Laced lollipops: Why are parents purposely getting their kids infected with chicken pox?

Dr. Elizabeth Jacobs, a UA Associate Professor of Epidemiology, said the anonymity of social media makes this figurative 'modern day pox party' even more dangerous.

Laced lollipops: Why are parents purposely getting their kids infected with chicken pox?

CREATED Feb 15, 2012

Reporter: Claire Doan

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Tucked away in the far recesses of the Internet: A demand for lollipops laced with chicken pox. That's right - parents who are wary of vaccinations believe it's a safe way to protect their kids.

The offer for infectious confections first appeared on Facebook: spit on suckers, spreading cooties from Arizona, to Tennessee, to Louisiana. A multi-state ring of parents are avoiding vaccinations for their children, sending and receiving lollipops with the chicken pox virus through the mail, hoping to infect their kids the natural way.

"Yes, it's the chicken pox lollipops: It's got the delicious taste kids love, but with the proven effectiveness of something licked by a stranger," Stephen Colbert joked on the Colbert Report.

While the idea has become the brunt of jokes, it's no laughing matter Dr. Elizabeth Jacobs, who is the Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Arizona's College of Public Health.

Jacobs told 9 On Your Side the idea is like the old pox party, which is getting neighborhood children together to get infected when one kid is sick. However, in this modern-day incarnation, the anonymity of social media makes it much more dangerous.

"The basic assumption is that you trust the person who is sending it to you, but you don't know who that person is, and you only know them through Facebook. It could be a fake Facebook profile," Jacobs said.

Dr. Karen Lewis, the Medical Director for the Immunization Program Office of the Arizona Department of Health Services, told KGUN9 News that the laced lollipops likely won't work - kids cannot get chicken pox that way.

"It makes no sense. Viruses need cells to live on," Lewis said in a phone interview.

However, the Pima County Health Department warns that what's in the mail is essentially a mystery.

"It could be chicken pox, it could be worse: HIV, hepatitis, poison, some sort of drug. So you really don't know," said Michael Acoba, the Program Manager for Epidemiology. 

Officials said there are no confirmed cases locally or statewide and the original Facebook post has since been taken down, but there is no way to know whether the offers to exchange infected lollipops are still going on via private social media.

The chicken pox vaccine has been available since 1995. Dr. Matt Heinz, a State Representative, said shots have side effects, but they're much safer than getting chicken pox.

"The thrust behind this idea is to infect your kids naturally. Is there any benefit to that versus a vaccination?" asked Reporter Claire Doan.

"No. With chicken pox, that virus can actually cause certain children with suppressed immune systems that may not even know it - to die from that virus," Heinz said. He encourages parents to discuss the benefits and risks of vaccinations with their doctor.

"For a while, people thought autism and certain types of disease from vaccinations. And it turns out that's not factually correct. The data do not support that," Heinz said.

So who's cracking down on the laced lollipops? KGUN9 News asked Rob Soler, a spokesman from the U.S. Post Office.

"When you mail something at the post office, the clerk will ask you if there's anything flammable, hazardous and potentially dangerous in that package. And under the law, the person who's mailing it needs to respond honestly. That's our first point of check," Soler responded, adding that the U.S. Post Office does not screen materials.

However, a U.S. Attorney in Nashville warns that sending infected items through the mail is a federal crime, punishable by up to 20 years in jail. Nashville is where the pops first popped up.

Some epidemiologists and doctors said the anti-vaccination movement stems from misguided information on the Internet, and the fact that people can't remember the pre-vaccine days when diseases like the chicken pox were more deadly.

However, Jacobs advises: Regardless of your take on shots, don't take a shot at laced lollipops.

"It's downright dangerous to public health. I don't understand why anyone would willingly expose their kids to a disease that is vaccine preventable," Jacobs said.

9 On Your Side tried to contact members on the Facebook site called "Find a Pox Party in Your Area," where the lollipops were originally advertised, but none of them responded to our requests for comment.