Pox Parties for Grannies? Chickenpox, Exogenous Boosting, and Harmful Injustices

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Heidi Malm & Mark Christopher Navin

Tag(s): Journal article


Some societies tolerate or encourage high levels of chickenpox infection among children to reduce rates of shingles among older adults. This tradeoff is unethical. The varicella zoster virus (VZV) causes both chickenpox and shingles. After people recover from chickenpox, VZV remains in their nerve cells. If their immune systems become unable to suppress the virus, they develop shingles. According to the Exogenous Boosting Hypothesis (EBH), a person’s ability to keep VZV suppressed can be ‘boosted’ through exposure to active chickenpox infections. We argue that even if this hypothesis were true, immunization policies that discourage routine childhood varicella vaccination in order to prevent shingles for other people are unethical. Such policies harm children and treat them as mere means for the benefit of others, and are inconsistent with how parents should treat their children and physicians should treat their patients. These policies also seem incompatible with institutional transparency.

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