With a vaccine against chickenpox joining the National Immunisation Schedule this July, Pippa Henderson thought it timely to look into the signs, symptoms and possible complications of the disease, as well as the benefits of protection.
Chickenpox, also known as varicella, is a highly infectious disease caused by the varicella zoster virus. While most people consider chickenpox a common, harmless illness, almost a childhood rite of passage, occasionally the disease develops serious complications for sufferers, which can have lasting effects. The rather unpleasant list of possible complications includes difficulty eating and drinking, permanent scarring, bacterial skin infections, pneumonia and inflammation of the brain. Chickenpox can be particularly serious for pregnant women who have never had chickenpox in the past, as there’s a small chance of passing the disease to the unborn baby, with really unfortunate consequences. The highest risk period is during the first 20 weeks, but catching it just before or after the birth can also be serious.
The good news is there’s a vaccine available, which has just become easier to access. Varilix will be on the National Immunisation Schedule from July 1st 2017, which means that all Kiwi children who get their immunisations will receive one dose for free at their 15-month visit. Older children will be offered a free chickenpox vaccine when they turn 11, if they haven’t already had either chickenpox or the vaccine.
Other countries have had this vaccine on their immunisation schedules for many years. The United States introduced the vaccine in 1995 and has seen a dramatic decrease in chickenpox cases, related hospitalisations, and deaths in young children. This is the first time a funded chickenpox vaccine has been available in NZ, and the public health benefits look promising. After a single vaccine dose, more than 95% of children are protected from moderate to severe chickenpox. Two doses give optimal, longer-term protection for most people immunised.
Early symptoms of chickenpox may include a mild fever, loss of appetite, head-ache and tiredness, followed by a red rash that becomes itchy and blisters. Chickenpox is highly contagious – more than 85% of people susceptible to chickenpox will become infected after exposure – meaning once one child has it, other children in the family are also likely to become infected, increasing the length of time when you are unable to engage in usual day-to-day activities. Significant periods of time away from childcare puts unwelcome pressure on working parents, and cabin fever can set in.
The chickenpox vaccine presents an opportunity to protect not only your family’s health and wellbeing, but also all the other interrelated aspects of family life. Your child’s protection against the disease can also be considered protection for your wider community, especially any children with compromised immunity who your child may be in contact with.
For further advice, please see your doctor.