BELFAST, Maine — Alessandra Martinelli has been watching her 21-month-old daughter like a hawk, looking for the telltale, blister-like rash of chickenpox.
And if she spots it, she’ll be happy.
“Some things are not bad things for kids to have,” Martinelli, whose two children intentionally have been given no vaccines, said last week. “Here we are, going out, trying to get our kids sick. But we’re not mean parents. This kid is going to have this immunity forever.”
Martinelli is one of a small but vocal contingent of parents who are philosophically opposed to the way that children are vaccinated in the United States. Small infants do not need to be loaded up with vaccines just hours after they have been born, she said. And so her family has for the moment opted out of childhood vaccinations — including the vaccine for chickenpox, or varicella.
Instead, she is intentionally seeking out ways to expose her toddler to the infectious disease that was common among American children until a vaccine was developed in 1995. She gave Charlotte a lollipop, the girl’s first ever, that had been previously sucked on by a friend’s infected son.
“She loves chickens. She’s really excited,” Martinelli said.
She believes there is a place for vaccinations. It’s just not her house, not yet.
“I’m a fully immunized person. I think they’re useful. They’re not useful for my breast-fed, home-schooled child under 3,” Martinelli explained.
Her family is far from alone in midcoast Maine. Chickenpox has been making its itchy, blistered trip around the area, as infected children share lollipops and even have “chickenpox parties” with those who are well.
“You have to strike while the iron is hot,” Martinelli, a down-to-earth, friendly woman said. “A lot of moms are doing this.”
Chickenpox used to be one of those childhood diseases that parents, and kids, just had to get through with the help of calamine lotion or oatmeal baths. According to the Centers for Disease Control, before the vaccine was developed, four million people would get chickenpox each year in the United States. Of that number, about 10,600 people were hospitalized and 100 to 150 died each year.
Medical experts argue that the development of a safe, reliable vaccine means that families now can — and should — avoid chickenpox.
“When the vaccine came out, many people said, ‘why bother? This is a normal childhood thing. No biggie,’” said Ann Graves, an infection preventionist at Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast. “Because there is a nice, safe vaccine out there — chickenpox parties just don’t have a good place in making sure our children are healthy. We all want the best for our kids.”
The two-shot varicella vaccine can have side effects for children. Those include getting a sore arm, running a mild fever for a couple of days and getting a minor rash.
Occasional, more serious side effects include seizures and pneumonia. But still, she said, getting vaccinated is a safer choice than intentionally getting chickenpox.
Of 1,000 people with chickenpox, two will have to be hospitalized and 50 will get serious infections in the chickenpox lesions, or blisters.
“That can lead to scarring, more serious infections and serious health consequences,” Graves said.
Another risk is that pregnant women who have not been immunized against chickenpox can lose their babies if they are exposed to the virus, especially in the first trimester.
Although chickenpox isn’t often considered to be a serious disease, in Maine it is mandatory to have the vaccination before entering school — with some exceptions. Parents can opt out of vaccinations for medical, religious or personal belief reasons, she said.
However, to protect the health of all children, those who have not had the varicella vaccine must stay home from school for 16 days from the report of the last case of chickenpox. During an outbreak, that can be a long time at home.
“The more people in any community who are vaccinated, the better the health of the whole community,” she said. “There’s going to be less opportunity for that disease to spread. If there are fewer people who can get sick, there are fewer people who will get sick. it’s called herd immunity.”
But parents like Jessica Johnson of Troy, whose infected son licked the lollipop for Charlotte, said the issue of vaccinations is complicated.
“When it becomes legislated, or mandated, that’s a scary thing,” she said. “I don’t want to sound naive. A lot of [diseases] can cause serious, serious problems.”
But, she said, building immunity is more important than taking “potentially scary” vaccines, especially for parents who are so careful about what children eat, and what they’re exposed to.
“You hear stories of complications from the vaccines,” she said.
Graves said she understands that many parents are nervous about childhood vaccines, which have been controversial in recent years. Science has debunked the link between vaccines and autism, she said, but many moms and dads are still wary.
“My big thing is that parents need to be able to make informed decisions for their children,” Graves said. “I support anyone, whether they’re considering vaccination or considering old-fashioned chickenpox parties to get the information.”
Johnson said she agreed.
“It’s a difficult decision. It’s a huge burden, to read and really own that decision,” she said of the matter of childhood vaccinations. “I wish more parents would be informed.”