Chicken pox was in the news again. Quite a few children from a school in North Carolina have come down with it. Local media quickly picked up the story. National and international media outlets copy/pasted that story and turned it into a major headline. When my kids caught the chicken pox, it wasn’t front-page news. But that was way back then. Today, things are different. I noticed how different with each news story I read over the last two weeks.
It wasn’t so much that children caught a childhood illness that was being reported. More focus was on the parents of these children. Making sure to point out that the kids were at school with a religious vaccine exemption, as they have every right to be, the parents were made out to be irresponsible. What a world of difference life is for today’s parents whose children get sick with chicken pox compared to those depicted years ago. Name calling was non-existent. Judging a parent and their beliefs was unheard of. As was the case when my kids came down with it, chicken pox and the temporary inconvenience it’s known to bring, was simply part of life. I was reminded of that after seeing two television show reruns about two months ago that included characters coming down with chicken pox. After seeing those shows, which were quite popular when they originally aired, curiosity got the best of me. How many other shows used this illness in their stories? I had to find out.
The more titles I searched, the more shows I found that included chicken pox! What was interesting to note was the media never swooped in to badger any of these characters. Why would they? As Arthur’s father states matter-of-factly in the kid’s show Arthur, the media would never be involved in the storyline because, “It’s chicken pox. It’s just a normal childhood illness. I had it…your mom had it…” (Season 1, Episode 18; 1997) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__aSJkgOyrc No big whoop, right? Same goes for Caillou. He’s also told by his mother just the facts, “You won’t be sick very long. You’ll see.” And how right she was! He really would be outside playing in the garden soon enough. (Season 1, Episode 52; 1997)
Since it is a contagious disease, other shows were sure to feature multiple characters being sick. Several family members from Full House dealt with the disease together in A Pox in Our House (Season 1, Episode 15; 1988). I don’t usually read YouTube comments, but I started to while looking at this clip. If you read through them, you’ll see that most are positive and about the cuteness of the events in the episode. Seemingly out of the blue, one person chimed in stating that a chicken pox vaccine was not around when this show aired. While one was not licensed here in the States until 1995, a live attenuated virus vaccine had been in production in Japan as early as the 1970s. It wasn’t until 1988 that a chicken pox vaccine was released in Japan and also in Korea.
Vaccine availability or not, shows that aired beyond the year 1995 continued to include chicken pox-themed content. Writers of children’s and family shows, as well as prime time sitcoms, continued to add humor to these scenes as well. That was apparent when Chuckie, from Rugrats, was convinced by his pals that the chicken pox was going to turn him into a real chicken in the Chicken Pops story. (Season 4, Episode 4; 1997). That’s just a short clip. The full episode can be seen here but requires payment.
We head into early 2000s TV with continued talk of those pox. Older kids and adults are not spared the disease. I couldn’t find video, but Little Bill aired a show (Season 1, Episode 9; 2000) titled The Chicken Pox. As with the others from previous decades, no harm, no foul in this episode—just Little Bill missing out on a baseball game while he deals with those itchy, itchy chicken pox. Speaking of how itchy they can be, “Hardest part is not to scratch,” Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory is told. He can’t help it though and just wants to scratch during the short video clip of this animated television show. (Season 4, Episode 34; 2002) We hear some common sense and that reassurance again – that the chicken pox is not serious, in That’s So Raven: “Don’t worry, guys. It’s no big deal.” (Season 2, Episode 3; 2003)
While not unusual, cases of chicken pox in adults are possible and can be as annoying as it is for young children. When Norm hears that Sam Malone from Cheers is home with it, he says, “…it can be pretty painful for an adult and highly contagious, too…” Even so, the opening scene ends showing Sam in bed and surrounded by a gaggle of lovely ladies. (Season 8, Episode 23; 1990)
Shows from the 1950s and through the 1990s didn’t mind adding a 7-10 day viral illnesses to their stories. Producers didn’t hide or demean anyone as they did so. As early as 1959, chicken pox was part of TV. Poor Beaver from the popular Leave it to Beaver TV show has to stay in bed after coming down with it. I couldn’t find any playable video, but the description sounded no alarms. (Episode 20, Season 2; 1959) Back then, and through to the early 2000s shows, chicken pox was nothing to fear. Adding it and calling it what it was, a typical childhood illness, made audiences laugh for decades. Friends, like other popular shows even include the name of the disease in episode titles: The One With Chicken Pox. (Season 2, Episode 26; 1996) How’s that for normalizing something people never used to fear?
Keeping scenes accurate – the onset of fever, the fatigue, the intense desire to itch as well as the gradual and inevitable recovery from the illness, allowed viewers to feel sympathetic to their favorite on-screen actors, even if they’d just made a horrible choice in a previous episode like Bailey did in Party of Five. (Season 3, Episode 8; 1996)
I haven’t looked for any feature films that may include chicken pox yet, but just a few years ago, one of the largest film studios, Universal Pictures, shared a message. Now viewed over 12 million times and from one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, we learned that Angelina Jolie wouldn’t get to partake in the premier of her latest film. Why? Well, she came down with the chicken pox. (14 December 2014) I was happy to learn that she wasn’t out of commission for too long. By January 2nd, she’d bounced back and was in studios doing interviews again.
Fast forward to this year. A newly televised show based on a UK book series from the 1960s, called Topsy and Tim, posted this video in the middle of 2018. Here’s the story being read aloud: What’s notable in the story is that there’s no doom and no real gloom beyond the typical symptoms one would expect. As with every other show: Child feels ill. Fever sets in. Pox appear. Parent helps to manage and treat the symptoms. Child returns to regular activities. Family life returns to normal.
You get the picture.
Speaking of pictures, this one spoke volumes to me. It showed up on Facebook feed making the rounds on several friends’ and on some advocacy group pages after hundreds of news outlets posted about the chicken pox in North Carolina:
With how many other known contagious diseases out there, why is it that the media laser focuses on only the ones that are associated with a vaccine? Long gone are humorous television episodes that casually talked about what used to be called a common disease. Long gone is the thought that sickness sometimes happens. Long gone is the chance for us to trust our instinct. Long gone is logic. None of that happened overnight, but it’s become a lot more apparent the louder the media has become regarding certain topics.
TV parents have had to handle “plain ol’ mundane chicken pox” for decades. So have their friends and neighbors. Early in its 7-year run, Mary pitches in to help Phyllis on the Mary Tyler Moore Show when Phyllis’ husband, Lars, thinks he’s caught the pox. (Season 1, Episode 3; 1990). It turned out that Lars did not “contract a case of varicella”. But the producers still gave us ample opportunity to enjoy a show that portrayed what so many families knew to be true—that the disease was common, that it was itchy and inconvenient, and that it would soon be over.
Too bad the media doesn’t let us see chicken pox the same way today. They’ve traded facts for fear. They’ve told the public what they need to think and what they need to believe. Those who bother to speak out are ridiculed instead of lauded, like those parents in North Carolina have been. If I could offer some advice to those parents it’s to stand tall. Don’t listen to the negativity. You know your child best and you always have. Some of the physical scarring from a case of the chicken pox may fade over time, but emotional scarring from incidents like you’ve just experienced can linger longer than you might expect. You’ll be stronger for it though. I promise.
Cathy Jameson is a Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.