“Pox packages,” child abuse, and the violation of federal law

Fridays are usually a bad time for blogging for me, but it’s a choice, not due to any circumstances. Usually, on Friday nights, I consciously make an effort to stay away from the computer and the blog. Frequently, I’m tired, and not infrequently I’ll crash on the couch, only to wake up after midnight and wander upstairs to bed. Consequently, when something happens on Friday afternoon or evening, I often don’t find out about it until Saturday morning, which means I probably won’t blog about it before Monday because I’ve intentionally been trying not to post anything on the weekends. As hard as it is to believe, I have cut back some.

My evolving blogging habits aside, occasionally something happens that’s so bizarre, that enrages me so much that I can’t wait until Monday and I don’t care if I’m late to the party after Tara, Mike the Mad Biologist, The Biology Files, Todd, and probably several others whom I’ve missed. And what is so idiotic, so full of burning stupid combined with danger that I’m breaking my self-imposed weekend blog ban?

Regular readers of this blog and anyone who’s ever followed the anti-vaccine movement more than superficially have probably heard of pox parties. These are, yes, parties where parents who don’t want to vaccinate their children against chickenpox, hoping for “natural immunity,” intentionally expose their children who have never had chickenpox to children with active chickenpox in order to intentionally infect them with the disease. (Thanks, Mom and Dad, for a couple of weeks worth of misery and intense itching!) Pox parties are about as idiotic a concept as I can think of and only make sense in the context of equally idiotic anti-vaccine pseudoscience, and apparently, as is the case with many idiotic things, has co-opted Facebook and other discussion forums as a means of getting like minded (if you can call what is behind this a “mind”) together for purposes of inflicting misery on their children, not to mention the potential for serious complications. One such page even has a Quack Miranda-style warning:

It is explicitly expressed that, regardless of the beliefs of the group moderator or its members, the group is not responsible for the outcome of the connections made. This group is not intended to give medical advice, speak as a medical authority, or cause children to contract any illness. Parents who do so on this board, do so at their own risk and without the advise or recommendation of the leadership of this group.

Which is, of course, a lie so obvious that one wonders why the moderators even bother.

Some proudly display pictures of pox on children’s limbs. Others are even so proud of their “efforts,” that they proudly post pictures of them on their blogs, with chirpy captions like “The little people enjoying each other, playing, and getting exposed” and “Although it sounds awful, we certainly hope the exposing worked!” I can only respond that it doesn’t just “sound” awful. It is awful. True, such complications are fairly uncommon but they can be quite serious, all in the name of being “natural” and avoiding those evil vaccines. It turns out that some parents, apparently having difficulty finding children with active chickenpox in their area (thanks to the aforementioned evil vaccine, no doubt), are mailing the virus to each other:

Doctors and medical experts are concerned about a new trend taking place on Facebook. Parents are trading live viruses through the mail in order to infect their children.

The Facebook group is called “Find a Pox Party in Your Area.” According to the group’s page, it is geared toward “parents who want their children to obtain natural immunity for the chicken pox.”

On the page, parents post where they live and ask if anyone with a child who has the chicken pox would be willing to send saliva, infected lollipops or clothing through the mail.

Parents also use the page to set up play dates with children who currently have chicken pox.

Medical experts say the most troubling part of this is parents are taking pathogens from complete strangers and deliberately infecting their children.

One concern is that they are sending the virus through the mail.

Here’s the local Arizona news report:

Again, I can’t begin to describe how reckless and idiotic this is. It’s also highly illegal–a federal offense. I know of what I speak, because I personally have had to ship viruses and DNA plasmids through the mail. The reason was when I changed jobs about four years ago and was in the process of moving my laboratory to a new institution. I had a lot of adenoviral constructs. Varicella virus falls under the same sorts of rules as adenovirus. There are very specific rules for shipping. Tara explains quite nicely some of the requirements, among which is that there are very specific labeling requirements for the package to indicate what pathogens are inside. In fact, I found out the hard way just how rigorous and complex the labeling requirements were when a couple of the packages were returned because, as much as we tried to follow the letter of the regulations, we had somehow missed something in the labeling and paperwork. At that point I even briefly flirted with the idea of loading the samples up in my car and taking them myself when I hit the road to my new location. I quickly abandoned that notion, realizing that that, too, would be illegal and potentially dangerous. What if I got in a car crash along the way? So instead, we checked, double checked, and triple checked our packaging and paperwork and sent it again. This time, it went through, as we hadn’t missed any of the requirements.

As Mike the Mad Biologist points out, this is no different from bioterrorism, other than in intent. For one thing, the parents doing this seem utterly oblivious to the potential danger to the postal workers or workers at FedEx, UPS, or other shipping company that they use to send these biohazards. One also wonders if the parents use anything approaching proper technique to insert their “gifts” into the packages so that they don’t get it on their fingers and thus contaminate the outside of the package. In any case, should the package be damaged or should the baggy fail, so much for containment, and anyone who comes into contact with the package is at risk. That’s why there are so many federal regulations about shipping biohazardous substances across state lines. Indeed, when it was pointed out that shipping biohazards like bodily fluids from an individual infected with varicella across state lines is a federal offense, this was the reaction:

A Facebook post reads, “I got a Pox Package in mail just moments ago. I have two lollipops and a wet rag and spit.” Another woman warns, “This is a federal offense to intentionally mail a contagion.”

Another woman answers, “Tuck it inside a zip lock baggy and then put the baggy in the envelope 🙂 Don’t put anything identifying it as pox.”

The level of irresponsibility and lack of concern for fellow human beings is staggering. As Todd points out, it’s not just varicella that might be in there? How does anyone know that there aren’t other pathogens in there? They are utterly self-absorbed, selfish, and lack concern for anyone but themselves and their own family. Indeed, look at the interview with the first mother in the video; she openly discusses sending pox through the mail and doesn’t seem to think it’s a big deal, all the while rambling on about how it’s the parents’ “choice.” The second mother, when confronted by the reporter, out and out lies about what was on her Facebook page, denying that she ever sent pox through the mail. It’s a mindset that was perfectly described as a Me! Mine! Mommy mindset that boils down to, basically, the right to be selfish.

But it’s worse than that. Near the end of the report from the local CBS affiliate above, there is a post from a parent looking for measles, which is much more dangerous than chickenpox. Her reason? This:

Dad is threatening to take it to court and getting exposed is the only way not to get the vaccine without possibly losing custody.

If you want an example of how far the irrational fear of vaccines will drive some people, you have no further to look than this story. At the risk of being too “strident” or “nasty” or “uncivil,” I can say unequivocally that what they are doing is, in my opinion, child abuse and that I hope that the feds come down on them like a ton of bricks for violating federal law and endangering everyone who comes into contact with their little “pox packages.”