severe chicken pox on a child's back

Chicken Pox Nearly Killed Me

severe chicken pox on a child's back

Source: Wikipedia

I developed encephalitis from severe chicken pox in 1964. Fortunately, my mother was an RN and when she couldn’t wake me, I was rushed to the hospital. I’m lucky they were able to save me—I was in a coma for a week and spent 2 weeks total in the hospital.

Even without almost dying, it was a horrible experience. Every kid in the neighborhood was brought over to play in my room with my toys while I was in bed, covered head to toe with calamine lotion. The lesions were in my throat, under my nails, deep in my ears, etc. And my mom tied my hands to the bed frame so I couldn’t scratch. It was horrible.

I made sure my kids got all their vaccinations, including chicken pox. I could never take a chance on the lives of my children.

– Mary Kaye Waterson

Chicken pox on child

When Chicken Pox is not just a Week Off School: Michael’s Story

Chicken pox on child

Picture taken from the Public Health Library.

This guest post is written by Michael, the author of the wonderful Skeptical Raptor blog. His description of himself can be found here:

Sometimes history gives one perspective to understand the consequences of our actions. I grew up in a world with numerous infectious disease epidemics, in a time before there were large numbers of vaccines available. I was very young, so my memories were of my parents keeping me out of school or away from friends if I had something or they knew an epidemic was flying through the area. I had the polio and smallpox vaccines when I was young, so my parents stopped being worried about them. My father would tell me stories about polio epidemics during the summers of his youth in Upstate New York. I remember thinking that these stories were reminiscent of the same ones where he said that he walked uphill in the snow both ways to and from class. Until I ended up going to a university in Upstate New York, and I had to do that. So I guess his polio stories might have been true.

Then as I grew up, I realized that polio was dangerous. I had several classmates who had had contracted polio. One was a friend who had to walk to and from class with two canes. One time, one of her canes broke, and I literally carried her from school to my car, then drove her home, then carried her into her house. Lucky for me, she was small and petite, and I was tall and strong.

So, I saw the effects of polio directly as I grew up. I was of the age that was right on the cusp of massive immunizations with the Salk and Sabin vaccines against polio. But it took time for the immunizations to get to everyone, so there were a few who were debilitated by the disease. Kids just a few years older had a higher rate of classmates who were afflicted with the after-effects of paralytic polio. Many died. Many were hospital bound in iron lungs.

It was in this world that I contracted chickenpox when I was about 6 or 7 years old. It’s hard to remember all of the details, but I remember a few things. First, I itched like crazy, and my mother would yell if I tried to scratch it. But I also got to stay out of school, so that was fine. Because, when all is said and done, chickenpox isn’t that dangerous of a disease.

Except when it is.

According to the CDC, before the vaccine was available, about 4 million people got chickenpox each year in the United States. Of those, 10,600 of those people were hospitalized, and 100 to 150 died each year. Those statistics seem small, unless you happen to be one of those who were hospitalized.

Which I was.

Again, it’s hard to remember all the details, but I remember feeling OK. Kind of like getting a cold. However, two things happened at the same time that nearly put me in the category of those who died from the disease. The first thing that happened was one of the pox marks, on the back of my head, became seriously infected. At the same time, I got a serious brain swelling (at that time, no one was sure if they were independent events or one caused the other). Within hours, I was dizzy, and I kept passing out.

My father was a career military officer at the time, and was of the opinion that “whatever didn’t kill you made you stronger.” Doctors were useful if you had a gunshot wound. But in this case, I clearly remember the concern in my parents’ face as I was shipped off in an ambulance to the military hospital on base.

Now everything is fuzzy. I recall laying on my stomach, as several surgeons were inspecting my head talking in secret medical talk (this was the 60’s, so no one was asking for an MRI or CAT scan). Finally, I had to undergo surgery to remove the infection from the behind my ear and to relieve pressure on my brain. Only many years later did I find out how bad the surgery had gone. I was close to death, but I was very young, so all I remember is coming out of anesthesia, and asking the surgeons to show me what they cut out of my head. It was seriously gross, looked like an alien organism had attached itself to me.

I lived, which is obvious since I can write this article. All that remained was a 5 cm scar behind my ear. I don’t think about it much until a get a haircut and the barber kind of stares for a few second.

Of course, when I was in my early 40’s, I contracted shingles, which is a disease that is caused by the same exact virus that causes chickenpox. The evil virus hangs out in your nervous system, waiting for an opportune moment to strike again. Except shingles is an infection of the nerves, so it’s much more painful (think of pouring hot oil on your skin, and you’d be about 50% of the way to understanding the pain). It attacked me, oddly, in the same place as my scar from the chickenpox, although my doctors said it was coincidental. Ten years later, I made sure I got the shingles vaccine so I’d never experience that again.

For most kids chickenpox isn’t awful, although the subsequent shingles is horrible, so there’s that. But if I were 5 years old again, and the chickenpox vaccine were available, I’d be begging for it so that I would have avoided what I went through. Many decades later, I remember the fear in my parents, and the scary smells and screams in the hospital. These are images that no 7 year old kid should ever have in their memory.

Vaccines would have saved me from that.


Too Close for Comfort: Rahel’s Experience with Chicken Pox

It was a hard time for Pamela as it was. Her husband had just
died, and she found herself alone with four young children, three boys and a
girl. Her oldest, at six, had just started first grade. Her second son was in
Kinder Garten, her third was three, and her daughter was still a breastfed
baby, at seven months. The youngest two were home with her, and the focus on
them helped, though she was lost and upset, trying to find some normality in a
world turned upside down.
Baby Rahel was already sitting on her own and had just
started pulling herself to a standing position.
And then it started. Says Pamela: “One day my oldest came home acting a bit
‘off’. Later that evening, when I took his clothes off, I noticed a
blister under his arm and at first thought that his clothes had rubbed against
his skin. I have to add that my oldest is handicapped and has extremely
sensitive skin, so that was also a possibility. Anyway, the next morning he was
covered in blisters.”
The child’s fever shot up, “quite high”, Pamela said. During
that second day, her second son started to get sick, followed by her three-year-old the following day.
All of them suffered substantially, says Pamela: “[the eldest]
had blisters mostly on his torso and his fever went away after a few days, once
the blisters started to dry up. [her second son, five years old] had it bad,
the back of his knees was so covered he couldn´t even bend them and he also had
blisters on the inside of his eyelids. [her third son], three, had a very high
fever for several days and was covered from head to toe.”
At first Pamela thought the disease spared baby Rahel – “we got
lucky with her.” Pamela herself knew that a few years earlier, when her titers
were measured, she had high levels of antibodies; she believed breastfeeding
Rahel protected her against the chicken pox.
She was wrong. A few days after the boys were sick, as they were
healing, “I woke up in the middle of the night to her whimpering. When I turned
the light on, I was in shock: she was covered with blisters and had a really
high fever.”
“During the course of the day, she got more and more spots and
her fever got higher so we called our pediatrician . He came to the house (as
he usually did in very serious cases) to check on her and prescribed some
calamine lotion and something to bring the fever down a bit.”
The pediatrician was shocked. He was an experienced pediatrician – who took care of Pamela herself as a baby. He said that in his many years practicing, this was one of the
worst cases he had ever seen.
Rahel was not getting better. After a little while, says Pamela,
“there were more blisters on her than normal skin. It was awful, she had a
raging fever, was so weak she couldn’t even feed anymore and could only
whimper. Her eyes were red and light-sensitive, horrible.” The pediatrician,
asked to visit again, took one look at the baby and called an ambulance. Pamela and
Rahel were taken to the hospital; Rahel arrived with a fever of 41 degrees
Celsius, 105.8 Fahrenheit. They was immediately admitted to the isolation unit in
ICU, where Rahel was attached to monitored and an IV inserted into her arm. She
was given fluids and anti-viral medications and medication to reduce her fever.
Pamela was very, very frightened.
The pediatrician said it was the worst case he had seen in his
many years practicing. He asked permission to give Rahel a new drug that has
just come out, explaining that without something to help she would die anyway,
and that way, she at least had a chance. Rahel was not really conscious – but
Pamela was both scared and distressed. She says: “It was horror. After losing
my husband a month earlier, I thought, now I am losing my only daughter as
Pamela and Rahel spent four days in ICU, and then several more
days in the hospital. Recovery at home was long. Rahel, previously active and
already pulling herself to a standing position, was so weak she could hardly
lift her head. She had lost 15% of her body weight – a lot, for such a young
baby. The blisters left on her body covered her all over, including her diaper
area, kept getting infected and oozing, and had to be covered with
antibiotic ointment. It took many weeks for her to get anywhere near normal.
Pamela feels very strongly about vaccination. Having been
through such a traumatic experience, she cannot understand why a parent would
not vaccinate their child against chicken pox. The disease might be mild in many cases,
but it can kill (See, for example, here and here) or lead to seriouscomplications and suffering. The vaccine, on the other hand, is extremely safe (see also here), and although a child can still
get chicken pox after it, it is almost always a much milder version:
Meme provided courtesy of the Facebook page Refutations to Anti-Vaccine Memes  

Rates of shingles among vaccinated children are also
substantially lower than among unvaccinated children.
is clear: if she could at the time, she would have vaccinated her children
against the disease. Her main reason for sharing her story is so that other
parents realize how dangerous chicken pox can be, and take precautions to
prevent their kids suffering through something like this. 

Acknowledgements: I’m grateful to Pamela for sharing her story and to Alice Warning Wasney and Clara Obscura for reading and commenting on my draft. All errors are, of course, my own. 


A March of Diseases

Peter was  born in
1945. He has one older sister and one younger. He remembers his miserable
experience with both chicken pox and measles. He was lucky, he knows, not to
have any complications from either disease, but young as he was, he remembers
his experience with both as quite unpleasant.

Peter was not yet six when he had the chicken pox.  His older sister got it, and he got it a few
days after. His parents feared that the youngest, his two-year-old sister,
would also get it. Luckily, she did not. Peter says: “I think we were both had
the running sores at the same time. That was pretty miserable.”
Peter remembers being
“slathered with calamine lotion several times a day and having these big
pink splotches everywhere. Although it was standard treatment at the time, it
didn’t seem to help much.” He doesn’t remember how long he was sick for, but
“the temptation to scratch was so intense that for a few days I know I was
wearing my kiddie-size boxing gloves that I had gotten for Christmas the year
before.”  It was his parents’ idea, and
“they definitely kept me from scratching.”
His measles experience, at around ten years of age, was also
memorable, though he seemed to have had a mild case, since he does not remember
feeling particularly ill. He does vividly remember having to stay in a darkened
room and not being allowed to do anything at all. Any mental stimulation or
excitement was thought to be bad for a child with measles at that time. It was
summer, and he missed the Fourth of July fireworks, and playing with sparklers,
and was upset that he could hear his sisters enjoying themselves outside. An
avid reader, he was not allowed to read, and felt that deprivation keenly.
Two summers in a row, a little past his tenth birthday,
there were polio epidemics. They were not allowed to go to crowded public
places, including beaches, amusement parks, municipal swimming pools, even to
the movies. “It was basically stay-close-to-home time. We were worried to
death. At one point we were in a doctor’s waiting room and a kid came through
who had been exposed to someone who had active polio, and I had a few days of
worrying about that, though I now realize the risk was very small. That’s how
strong and pervasive the fear was before the Salk vaccine.”
He remembers seeing and reading about iron lungs, the iconic
symbol of polio. They were tubular metal tanks in which one lay, with only
one’s head sticking out. A tight seal around the neck isolated the tank from
room air pressure, and a piston decreased the air pressure inside, drawing air
into the paralyzed person’s lungs.
Later, as an adult, he got a close-up experience: “…I started
working for a med school, and … we had a few old iron lungs tucked in the back
of one hallway.  Before they were
disposed of we actually got a chance to see what it was like to be in one. It
was quite strange having the air go in and out with no effort on your part.
They even had a cough setting which would actually force you to cough by a rapid motion of the piston.”
Asked how it felt, he said: “I’ve never been particularly claustrophobic
(until the first time I had an MRI of my head) so I didn’t have that feeling,
but the seal around the neck was not terribly pleasant—then again, if you were
in one of those things you probably wouldn’t be able to scratch it anyway. But
the knowledge that this machine is breathing for you, even when you could
breathe on your own, that was a little strange. I don’t know if I can get my
head around what it would be like to have
breathe with that machine.”
In 2008, he mentions, the last person dependent on an iron lung in the United States died – not of her disease per se, but from a power
There were almost always children in every school Peter attended
that had legs in calipers (Americans call them braces). He vividly remembers a boy
who sat next to him in a class whose right arm was nothing but skin and bone
from polio. “I had a strange fascination with it; I’m sure he thought I was
extremely rude.”
A memory from a later age also remains with him: “When I was
in college, I went to a  mixer, …  and I saw this stunningly beautiful girl sitting
at a table. I went over and made a little chit-chat, asked her if she wanted to
dance and she said “No, I can’t.” I stupidly asked why, and she just kind of turned
away and waved me off, making a “go away” gesture with her hand.  Later in the evening I saw her leaving the
area where we had the mixer and she was walking with a pronounced limp. One of
her legs was just skin and bone. ”
While Peter did not have other vaccine preventable diseases, they were in the
background – whooping cough, mumps. He remembers mumps “was going around when I
was in my teens and my mother I recall being concerned that I would get it
because I’m the last male in my particular patriarchal line and I had ‘a
responsibility to carry on the family name.’ ”
In high school, there was a classmate who died of meningitis.
“It was early in the week, Monday or Tuesday, and in Latin class Miss Gardner
started talking about a girl who was absent, whom I didn’t know very well, and
the way she was talking—”it was meningitis, and it was very
quick”—and I was thinking “Wait, what? Someone died?” Yes,
someone in our Latin class died of meningitis over a weekend. I’m told that
because of the vaccine, most doctors these days have never seen a case of it.”
Peter also remembers having the flu as an adult. He says:
“it’s not a bad cold. It feels like you’ve been hit by a truck. If the air is
circulating in the room and your hair
moves it hurts. Just incredible hypersensitivity to any sort of touch to the
skin. Any effort at all would cause me to start sweating, and I could feel the
droplets flowing across my scalp. They
More recently, in 2009, Peter lost a Facebook friend to H1N1
flu. He describes her as a “very colorful woman; absolutely unforgettable.” To
protect her privacy, he asked not to disclose her name, but he said: “When she
was first taken sick, she kept going on — posting on Facebook — about how bad
she felt. Really, really bad. She was hospitalized and it was reported that
they were still trying to figure out what she had, and a few days later some family
was there and all of a sudden she sat bolt upright, stopped breathing, fell
back and she was gone; they couldn’t being her back. And it turns out that it
was H1N1 flu, verified by PCR testing.”
Peter says: “When the H1N1 flu vaccine first came out, one
of my Facebook friends asked our circle if we thought she should get the
vaccine. Despite the fact that that particular group leans strongly toward
“alternative medicine,” the discussion was fairly polite. Some of the usual
misinformation was shared, like “I got the flu from the vaccine; never again,”  and she said that she’d decided to take her
chances because the “natural” immunity was “better,” and I thought,
“To get the natural immunity you have to get sick as hell for two weeks; what
is wrong with you.” I don’t remember
whether I posted that or not; sometimes it’s best to just accept that people
won’t make the best choice despite your efforts.”
“Pro-vaccination?” Peter concludes.  “I’m as pro-vaccination as it gets.” Knowing what he knows,
seeing what he has seen, he does not understand how anyone could be otherwise.