On Chickenpox Worldwide

August 29, 2011

Chickenpox was once considered a rite of passage for most children, but since the establishment of routine vaccination programs, complications from the virus have seriously decreased. While the condition very seldom leads to secondary infections or other issues, it is highly contagious and can be problematic in some individuals. It is important that parents ensure their children receive vaccinations for chickenpox and other common childhood illnesses, and remain mindful when interacting with infected individuals.

In the 16th century, the varicella zoster virus (VZV), the virus that causes chickenpox was identified, but it was not until the end of the 19th century that physicians were able to reliably distinguish chickenpox from smallpox. VZV is a member of the herpes virus group, and like other herpes viruses, it has the capacity to persist in the body after the first infection as a latent infection and can reappear as shingles. Shingles, which manifests as a painful rash on one side of the body, occurs in approximately one in 10 adults. It is the result of re-activation of the VZV virus which persists as a latent infection in sensory nerve ganglia and can occur in any individual who has recovered from chickenpox, but it is most common in individuals over 60.

Spread through direct contact with the rash or droplets dispersed into the air by coughing or sneezing, chickenpox manifests as a red, itchy rash which first appears on the face, trunk, or scalp. The rash usually appears 10 to 21 days after infection, and may be accompanied by a fever, abdominal pain, headache, and a general feeling of unease and discomfort. If scratching the rash is not discouraged through the use of oatmeal or baking soda baths, the application of calamine lotion, or antihistamines, individuals may contract a bacterial infection of the skin. Other complications that can result from chickenpox include viral pneumonia, bleeding problems, and infection of the brain (encephalitis).

Before the introduction of a vaccine, approximately 10,600 people were hospitalized and 100 to 150 died as a result of chickenpox in the U.S. every year. Vaccination became routine practice in the U.S. in 1995, and there are now two live, attenuated VZV-containing vaccines available for use. Recent studies have shown that in children, two doses of the chickenpox vaccine is 98 percent effective in preventing infection, compared with 86 percent effectiveness for a single dose. Recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics indicate that children should receive their first shot at 12 to 15 months, and the second at four to six years to ensure the maximum benefit. While a reported 15 to 20 percent of vaccinated individuals do still become infected with chickenpox if they are exposed to it, their condition is significantly milder and lasts for a shorter period of time.

By increasing awareness about the importance of vaccination, it may be possible to further decrease rates of infection and complications associated with chickenpox. Vaccination against chickenpox and other childhood illnesses can not only protect the individual receiving the vaccination, but can help to protect individuals who may not be able to receive vaccinations due to health conditions by contributing to the herd immunity of their community


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