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Doctors nix idea of 'flu parties' to get immunity in case virus becomes deadlier

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TORONTO - As a reason for a party, this one is getting a big thumbs down from public health officials.

Rumours have emerged in Britain and elsewhere about people mixing with friends who have the new H1N1 virus and parents throwing "swine flu parties" so their children will get infected.

Their apparent reason is a belief that it's better to get the virus now while it causes mostly mild illness than in the fall when a possibly mutated and more deadly version could appear, says the British Medical Association, warning against such disease-swapping socials.

"I have heard of reports of people throwing swine flu parties and I don't think it is a good idea. I would not want it myself," said Dr. Colin Hamilton, chair of the public health committee for the BMA in Northern Ireland.

"The virus has only been known for two months and is still an unknown quantity," Hamilton said in a statement. "Our advice remains that people should avoid contracting it as much as possible until vaccines are produced."

The idea of swine flu get-togethers is likely modelled after "chicken pox parties" of the past, in which parents deliberately exposed their children to playmates infected with the virus in a bid to control when they got the disease. (A chicken pox vaccine is now available.)

While there is no firm evidence that flu-spreading functions are actually taking place, anecdotal reports suggest some people are at least talking about them.

Dr. Michael Gardam, an infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network in Toronto, said he has heard about Canadians tossing around the idea.

"I have no proof that they're actually occurring," he said Thursday. "Just people sort of making off-the-cuff comments about, 'Yeah, we should get our kids together and get them infected' and whatever. I don't know of anyone who's actually done it."

Even though he understands parents' desire to get a bout of flu out of the way so they don't have to worry about it later, Gardam opposes the idea.

"This disease is not always benign. Just like the concept of chicken pox parties. I never agreed with that, either, because that disease is not always benign."

"How are you going to feel if you knowingly expose your child to this and they're the one in 100 or one in 500 that gets really sick from this or in fact even dies?"

In a recent New York Times interview, flu specialist Dr. Anne Moscona of Cornell University called the notion "totally nuts ... It's vigilante vaccination - you know, taking immunity into your own hands."

Canada's chief medical officer of health agreed that holding gatherings to transmit this pandemic strain of influenza would be a dangerous practice.

"The problem is that while it may be true that for the majority it's a mild disease, you cannot predict which child will get seriously ill and die," Dr. David Butler-Jones said Thursday. "And who wants to have that party and have that as a consequence?"

"So to the extent that you can avoid infection, that is the first priority. And then once we have a vaccine in place in the fall, that is the best prevention."

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