Have you ever seen a child with a chickenpox rash? If your pediatrician has been practicing for fewer than 20 years, chances are they haven’t seen many — maybe not any — cases of chickenpox either. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chickenpox is no fun; it can be dangerous to many and life-threatening to some:
Chickenpox is a very contagious disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV). It causes a blister-like rash, itching, tiredness, and fever. The rash appears first on the stomach, back and face and can spread over the entire body causing between 250 and 500 itchy blisters. Chickenpox can be serious, especially in babies, adults, and people with weakened immune systems. The best way to prevent chickenpox is to get the chickenpox vaccine.
Since it became available in the U.S. in 1995, the varicella vaccine (Varivax) has been a shining public health success:
Before the vaccine was available, about 4 million people got chickenpox each year in the United States, over 10,500 of those people were hospitalized, and about 100-150 people died.
Unfortunately, says Sam DeGrave, some parents in North Carolina didn’t get the memo:
A chickenpox outbreak at a private school now ranks as North Carolina’s largest since a vaccine for the virus became available more than 20 years ago, health officials say.
As of Friday, 36 students at Asheville Waldorf School had contracted the varicella virus, known to most as chickenpox. The school has one of the highest vaccination religious exemption rates in the state…
Those recommendations have by and large gone unheeded by the parents of Asheville Waldorf’s 152 students — 110 of whom have not received the chickenpox vaccine, which was made available in the United States in 1995.
In October, a chickenpox outbreak sickened 38 students at a school in Clark County, Oregon, where 7.5% of the students received vaccine exemptions last year for medical, religious, or personal reasons. Unvaccinated children who may have been exposed to a classmate with chickenpox are required to be quarantined at home for 21 days before they are allowed to return to school (and to the rest of society, since they are potentially contagious to other people, including adults, in their community).
“Chickenpox is no big deal,” you might be telling yourself. “We all got chickenpox when we were kids and we were fine.” Well, not everyone did fine. Chickenpox is usually mild, yes, and aside from the uncomfortable, itchy rash that lasts for about a week and maybe a little fever, most people do recover uneventfully. But like any virus that makes people sick, the varicella-zoster virus can lead to significant and unpredictable complications including infected skin rashes (in this day and age of methicillin-resistant Staph. aureus (MRSA) bacteria, skin infections may be hard to contain and even harder to treat), dehydration requiring hospitalization and intravenous fluids, pneumonia, and encephalitis that causes brain swelling. And having chickenpox in childhood raises the risk of getting shingles — a painfully debilitating and commonly brutal reprise of the chickenpox virus — as an adult. (The risk of shingles is much less in those who received chickenpox vaccine as children.)
I had chickenpox when I was four or five years old. My rash was a pretty bad one but I recovered. My parents, who experienced measles and whooping cough themselves, and paralytic polio among their peers, put me at the front of the line for every childhood vaccine that was available and would have gladly prevented the pain and inconvenience of chickenpox in their children if a vaccine had been available then. They would have been pleased last week when after weeks of waiting for the national shortage of Shingrix to ease, I received the first of two doses of the new shingles vaccine. It hurt going in, I felt a little chilled later that night, and my arm was sore for a couple of days after. Mild side effects vs. getting shingles. Hmmm… Even if the side effects were more significant, it would have been a shot worth taking.