Pox parties are a controversial alternative to vaccination for diseases such as chickenpox. Such parties involve parents infecting non-immune children by exposing them to a contagious child. If successful, infection will usually lead to immunity, thus preventing infection later in life, which, for several vaccine-preventable diseases, is more severe than childhood infection. Some may consider pox parties more morally objectionable than opting out of vaccination through non-medical exemptions. In this paper, I argue that this is not the case. Pox parties involve immediate risk of harm for children and reduce future harms, whereas opting out of vaccination places children at long-term risk of harms that increase with time, at least for some pathogens. Regarding harm to others through onward transmission of infection, this can be easily prevented in the case of pox parties—given the relatively controlled timing of infection—by quarantining attendees after the party, whereas opting out of vaccination involves risks to others that are more difficult to control. I defend three criteria for an ethical pox party: (1) that the disease is sufficiently low risk, (2) that parents consent to their child’s attendance and (3) that children exposed to infection are quarantined and isolated appropriately. I argue that, if these criteria are met, pox parties are morally preferable to non-vaccination; such parties involve less risk to non-consenting others and, for some pathogens in some cases, even involve less risk for the children who participate. Thus, policies that permit non-medical exemption to vaccination should also permit ethical pox parties. Alternatively, if pox parties are not permitted, then vaccination should be mandated for those without medical contraindication.
- public health ethics
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