Monday, 19 January 2009

Chicken pox and moral dilemmas

I have a special ability to turn every small life event into an angst-ridden ethically complex personal drama. I can hardly check the mailbox without lengthy speculation on the moral implications of my actions. That's the kind of absurd thing that consumes me every day. I'm an over-sensitive nerd - that's how we roll.

When the kids of friends got chicken pox before Xmas, a new moral dilemma presented itself. I cast my mind back to when I got the pox at age 14. It was bloody awful. As a general rule, the older you are when you get it, the sicker you'll be. I was almost my adult height - probably about 5"6 - and after two weeks of misery my weight had dropped to an extraordinary 38kg.

First of all, I found myself wondering whether I should get my son immunised against chicken pox. I decided against the $80 injection - partly because it doesn't protect recipients against shingles (a related and far worse condition), but mostly out of some half-arsed psuedo-scientific fear that by trying to stamp out common childhood illnesses I would ultimately be weakening the human race.

Not wanting to be responsible for hastening the end of humankind, I was left with two options: to let Nature take Her course, inflicting the pox on my boy if and when She got around to it; or to speed things along by arranging a playdate between my kid and the bepoxed offspring of my chums.

My partner and I debated these options, and he remained uncomfortable with the deliberate exposure idea. It just seems icky, and kind of cruel. I argued that by orchestrating chicken pox now, we'd save the little guy much more unpleasantness in the future - but that still doesn't square well with the principle of 'first do no harm', and neither of us felt particularly reassured.

I ultimately won out with the argument that it was better for the lad to be sick while we have one parent at home full-time with the kids. This is at once sensible and horribly cynical - kids, we'd like you to get sick when it suits our career plans - and seems to suggest something faintly unpleasant about the sort of society we live in. But the playdate of pestilence went ahead, culminating in the poxed boy hugging the non-poxed boy at their parents' suggestion.

Two weeks later, my poor little boy began to come up in horrible sores. He got off lightly compared to many kids, but his sheer unhappiness at times made me feel like the crappiest mother in the world. So I hope my kids will continue to be blessed with good health - if chicken pox gives me an emotional crisis, I don't know how I'd cope with the serious illnesses that other, less lucky families are forced to live with.


Julie said...

I can foresee similar discussions in my future too. I never had any of the Unholy Trinity (chicken pox, mumps or measles) and was immunised. As other children around me at school fell victim I started to feel rather left out.

Did you ask The Boy what he thought? I'd be tempted to make it his decision, although that would possibly be Bad Parenting? Kind of like asking him whether he wants KFC or McDs when I should be making him a salad ;-)

Deborah said...

I was quite relieved when my elder daughter got the 'pox when she was about 4, and my younger daughters got it three weeks later. I would go with exposure, especially for boys - there can be severe consequences for fertilty if boys and men catch it once they are sexually mature.

The ex-expat said...

I'm of the opinion kids often get sick and it is generally good for them that they do as it helps their immune system become fighting fit.

Having been around the hyperparent who views even the slightest sniffle as the end of the world as we know it, I'd say that chicken pox are the less evil.

Lucy said...

I would personally opt for vaccination whenever possible, but in this case the later protection against shingles is probably the better option (although the day there's a shingles vaccine, that will no longer be the case.) That's almost certainly why chicken pox isn't on the regular vaccine schedule - the benefit of avoiding chicken pox doesn't outweigh the later risk of shingles. But stuff like measles and mumps can be and often was fatal before vaccination came in. While it doesn't do kids any harm to catch a cold now and again, treating serious diseases as just part of nature, as is being encouraged by some, is pretty nuts.

I had chicken pox around age three, but I don't remember whether it was deliberate or not; on reflection, I suspect it may have been. I found the whole thing quite exciting at the time, so I wouldn't worry too much about your boy.

Anonymous said...

My older son got chickenpox when he was around nine months which was great - he was funny-looking and a bit subdued for a week but not overly miserable and wasn't able to muster the coordination to scratch himself raw. I was disappointed my three-year-old didn't get the pox when it went round both school and playcentre last year.

My position on the vaccine is that I'll quite likely get it if I have a kid on the cusp of puberty who hasn't caught it naturally by then.

M-H said...

I'm not sure about the shingles dilemma. If a child has had chicken pox s/he is at risk of developing shingles in later life (as I did). If a child has had the vaccine s/he is at risk of shingles in later life. So why not vaccinate if the child doesn't it naturally? You may prevent at least one bout of illness that way.

Anonymous said...

When we were kids chicken pox was pretty much expected then once it was over it was over. Since you're not protected from shingles either way I'd say save your $80 and buy a bottle of calamine lotion and dole out the cuddles. If they haven't got it by puberty though my answer might change.

Hendo said...

Man. Perhaps I have a different opinion on this because I am not a parent. But I don't think I could deliberately expose my kid like that.

I think I also have a different opinion because I was vaccinated against all those childhood illnesses, including chicken pox, and managed to avoid them all. My brother had chicken pox when he was 11 and I was 13, but my parents tried really hard to stop me from getting it, and I did. This was partly because of my dad having had chicken pox three times - all as a teenager and adult.

Doctors freak out when I say I haven't had chicken pox, but the last time that happened, they made me have a blood test, and it turns out I have as much immunity against chicken pox as anyone.

So if I have kids... I will definitely go the immunisation route.