NASHVILLE A federal prosecutor is warning parents against trading chicken pox-laced lollipops by mail in what authorities describe as misguided attempts to expose their children to the virus to build immunity later in life.
The warning came after media reports surfaced about a multi-state ring of parents, wary of vaccinations that prevent the disease, who were swapping lollipops licked by a sick child in a modern day incarnation of a chicken pox party.
In those so-called parties, parents purposely put sick children together with healthy children in order to spread the ailment and build immunity without having the children vaccinated. This new form of party shares the disease anonymously and long-distance.
"Sending a virus or disease through the U.S. mail (and private carriers) is illegal. It doesn't matter if it crosses state lines," said David Boling, public information officer for the Attorney in Nashville.
"Also, it is against federal law to adulterate or tamper with consumer products, such as candy."
Boling said the issue came to light after a television "news report out of Phoenix that involved a Nashville woman that was shipping and receiving adulterated products."
Sending chicken pox-infected lollipops, swabs or vials of saliva to parents who want to infect their children and avoid vaccinations is not only illegal, it can be lethal, said Dr. Tim Jones, Tennessee's state epidemiologist.
"They are putting at risk the people around them," said Jones, commenting on a controversy that has sparked anger in both the medical and legal communities.
An epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta agrees. "It's an incredibly bad idea for a variety of reasons," said Dr. Rafael Harpaz, of the CDC's Division of Viral Diseases.
The transport and sale of contaminated items has been linked to a Facebook group called "Find a Pox Party in Your Area," which helps people anonymously arrange for the swapping and sale of contaminated items.
"There are a substantial number of people involved in it," Boling said, referring to the ring.
Nashville-based U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin has been outspoken on the matter because he wants to warn "folks that want to continue to engage in this kind of activity that they are certainly exposing themselves to criminal prosecution," said Boling, who would "neither confirm (nor) deny existence of an investigation."
Jones said old-fashioned "pox parties" were bad enough, but shipping items to infect children "is utterly inexcusable. In this case, these are people who are buying and selling infected or contaminated body fluids from complete strangers."
"There are a bunch of things wrong with this," he said, adding that parents could also be inadvertently giving their children items contaminated with influenza or hepatitis, in addition to chicken pox.
CDC's Harpaz said one major issue is that giving children the chicken pox instead of a vaccine could be a fatal mistake.
"Before the vaccine was licensed, there were in the order of 100 kids (in the U.S.) who died of chicken pox per year. Now there are very few among vaccinated children... It's kind of like playing Russian roulette with your child."
In addition to exposing children to chicken pox, those who have it are more susceptible to getting shingles later in life than are vaccinated children, Harpaz said.
"The idea that it's safer to give your kid the infection than it is to immunize them is just wrong, completely misguided and puts your child at unnecessary risk," said Tennessee epidemiologist Jones.
First of all, he said, the vaccine is safe, while those who give the children the disease "are putting at risk people around them. There may be people they could infect that don't have a choice, who can't take the vaccine."
The CDC's Harpaz said symptoms of chicken pox aren't noticeable for "10 days to 21 days when you are exposed." But that doesn't mean children aren't contagious.
Children taking chemotherapy or other medications that affect the immune system are among those who can't take the vaccine and would be at risk if exposed to infected children.
"You could infect them and kill them," said Jones. "That's murder."
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Jerry Norton)