Parents will go to almost any length to protect their children. But, when it comes to protecting them from disease, how far is too far?
The Channel 4 I-Team has found an underground network of parents actually shipping disease to each other. Our findings stunned the Tennessee Health Department and even prompted the U.S. Attorney in Nashville to contact other federal agencies and send a strong message to the public.
You may have heard over the years about those "Chicken Pox parties," where parents purposely expose kids to others thinking better they get exposed earlier than later or maybe they didn't want the vaccine. Well, this is that concept taken to an extreme. Mail order diseases: Experts say it's dangerous for the families involved and for the unsuspecting people around them.
Our investigation started with a Facebook page called "Find A Pox Party In Your Area." But, this is no party. It's an underground trade where parents get on Facebook looking for a virus. When they find a match, they sometimes offer to make a charitable donation, trade or buy and sell contaminated spit, often carried on candy, Q-tips or washcloths.
One woman writes: "has anyone had success sharing the Chicken Pox with someone out of state by sending them something in the mail?"
In the same thread, another post: "that's actually a federal offense." There's even a how to guide, it reads: "tuck it inside a ziplock baggie then put it in the envelope...don't put anything identifying it as pox."
The group's claim: they want to build their children's lifelong immunities without vaccines, "even in the best circumstances, exposing your children to a potentially serious or even fatal disease which is virtually, completely preventable by a really safe vaccine is inexcusable. Not even talking about the other accidental risks from shipping, other infections," said the Tennessee Health Department's Epidemiologist, Dr. Tim Jones.
"One of the other very concerning things about this is obviously an unregulated product that's being bought and sold, we would have no idea what's even in this and what those children are being exposed to," said Dr. Isaac Thomsen, with Vanderbilt Children's Hospital.
One of the names on the Facebook postings is Wendy Werkit of Nashville. Her posts offer an assortment of tainted items. On one post we found, she says: "fresh batch of pox in Nashville shipping of suckers, spit and q-tips available tomorrow 50 dollars via PayPal."
We asked her about those online posts:
Kimberly Curth: "Have you been shipping it in the past? Contaminated bodily fluids to other states? "
Wendy Werkit: "I've shipped suckers."
Kimberly Curth: "okay, tell us about that those, lollipops, right?
Wendy Werkit: "Yes, they were sucked on by my kids."
Kimberly Curth: "and why would you do that?
Wendy Werkit: "So that other peoples' kids can get chicken pox, they can't get them the normal way anymore of just naturally catching and just naturally getting the immunity for life."
Kimberly Curth: "I see that you're charging 50 dollars?
Wendy Werkit: "I didn't make any money off of that, it was just the overnight shipping fee, it had to get there within 24 hours."
The state health department's epidemiologist says this affects more than just the parents who ordered the shipment, this affects everyone around them, "if a child who is exposed and has the disease were to spread this unknowingly, hopefully unknowingly, to someone in their church, to someone in their school, they can transmit the disease that way and if it's a child who couldn't be vaccinated because of medical reasons or who's on chemotherapy for cancer and were to get this disease and die from it, I mean that's just completely unconscionable," said Jones.
And there this is the risk of a host of other infections, "you might be making a choice to avoid Chicken Pox but how do you know there's not Hepatitis, that the other person didn't have HIV, didn't have an almost unlimited variety of other things to which you might be purposefully exposing yourself," said Jones.
Then there is the question of whether this is even legal. Soon after Channel 4 News started making inquires to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Nashville, U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin urgently wanted to do an on-camera interview to warn the public against this.
Kimberly Curth: "Is what we found happening a criminal offense?
Jerry Martin: "If you are seeking to expose someone to a virus, or an infectious disease, and you use the US mail or you otherwise use interstate commerce by sending something over state lines, you're potentially exposing yourself to criminal prosecution."
Kimberly:"How important is it that we caught this happening?"
Jerry Martin: "The message ought to be loud and clear to individuals who attempt to engage in this behavior, that the federal government and the Department of Justice take a very dim view to violating any federal laws but certainly laws that put public safety and public health at risk."
And, what is the message for anyone involved in this trade? "You know, there is no excuse for behavior like this," said state epidemiologist, Dr. Tim Jones.
Kimberly Curth: "What would you say to anybody taking part in this?
Jerry Martin: "I would tell them they need to stop and they need to stop immediately."
In the last few days, we found a new posting on the Facebook page where this is all happening, "Find A Pox Party In Your Area." It reads "A new private group! Only members can see. Will help to keep out unwanted viewers. Request to join."
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