You may have heard the news last week that a 51-year-old San Diego man died of the chickenpox. This news shocked a number of people who aren’t used to hearing about deaths from this once common childhood illness.
Over forty years ago chickenpox was very common among small children. In fact, if you’re a parent now, chances were you had this illness as a child, before the vaccine was introduced in 1995. Like most of my peers I had the chickenpox as a child. I remember being immersed in the bathtub by my parents to help soothe the itchy rash that I had and having socks placed on my hand in order to not scratch myself continuously. I was miserable and I remember the feeling to this day. I think back on these memories and I wonder how I ever made it through feeling so bad! It’s an experience I wouldn’t put my son through for anything.
While most of us suffered through the chickenpox as kids, most of us don’t actually know what it is and why it’s considered such a big concern now (spoiler alert: it was always a big concern).
Chickenpox is a highly contagious disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). It is spread through direct contact from an infected person to an unvaccinated person or via inhalation of droplets. The hallmark sign of infection is the development of itchy, fluid filled blisters that turn into scabs. While most of us are familiar with the blisters forming on the skin, they can actually form many other places on the body including the mouth, tongue, inside the throat, inside the ears, the inner eyelids and genitals. In addition to those nasty blisters, the chickenpox brings with it a fever, muscle aches, exhaustion and general misery. If that wasn’t enough, complications from the chickenpox include meningitis, encephalitis, sepsis and skin infections due to scratching the blisters. These side effects were rare in the 90s, but were and are still a risk. Overall, the illness lasts about 5-7 days, but severe cases can last longer. Children and adults that have not been vaccinated or have never been exposed to the virus, as well as those with weakened immune systems are very vulnerable to the disease (the San Diego man who died of the chickenpox had an underlying medical condition).
As I mentioned before, exposure to chickenpox was once a regular part of childhood before the vaccine was developed. The positive side of acquiring the infection naturally is that it conferred immunity against future infections. The negative side of acquiring the infection naturally is LITERALLY EVERYTHING I’VE MENTIONED SO FAR. Additionally, after acquiring the chickenpox naturally the virus remains in the body dormant and can remerge as a painful condition known as the shingles. About 30% of people that have had the chickenpox will go on to develop the shingles later in life.
So, let’s talk about the vaccine. Prior to the introduction of the vaccine in the United States in 1995, 3.5 million people annually contracted the virus, hospitalizing 9,000 and killing 100-150 people. Vaccination has decreased infection rates by about 90% but there are still occasional outbreaks in areas where vaccination rates are low. Cases in the United States within the last year have been seen in Michigan, Illinois, New York and Texas. All of these cases involved those who had not been vaccinated coming into contact with an infected person.
You might remember when we were kids our parents would send us over to a friend’s house when they found out they had the chickenpox. The idea back then was that if a parent knew the child was going to get the virus they could better plan for the massive disruption the illness caused. Instead of getting blindsided, they could stock up on Tylenol and calamine lotion, rent some movies (remember Blockbuster VHS tapes?) and rip the bandaid off so-to-speak. Back then there was almost no way to avoid your child getting the chickenpox, it was going to happen, so why not try to plan for it?
Now that there’s a vaccine, natural exposure to chickenpox is no longer an option whether unintentionally or intentionally via “chickenpox parties.” When I see parents that want to expose their children to the chickenpox through “pox parties” I shake my head. Why would you want to put your kid through that and put them at risk for the shingles later on?
Let’s talk about the vaccine. The vaccine for chickenpox is administered in two doses, first at 12-15 months of age and the second dose at 4-6 years of age. The vaccine provides protection for between 10 and 20 years. With the ability to protect against exposure to chickenpox via vaccination, the importance of timely vaccine administration is paramount to avoid a bygone era where becoming sick with chickenpox was almost inevitable.
Although chickenpox rarely causes side effects, the safer option for you, your children and the community at large is to be vaccinated. The small areas of resistance to vaccination, especially for chickenpox keeps the disease active initially among a small cluster of individuals but then when spread creates an even larger population that becomes exposed, sick and potentially in danger to suffer from complications. Speak with your pediatrician about chickenpox, possible side effects and benefits of the vaccine. Hopefully what you will find is that the chickenpox vaccine as with most vaccines have benefits that far outweigh the negative effects of vaccine side effects and the disease itself.