Happy National Immunization Awareness Month: Spotlight on the Chickenpox Vaccine

August is National Immunization Awareness Month and a time to celebrate all the pain, suffering, and deaths avoided thanks to vaccines. I’m currently on maternity leave and very thankful for all of the people who have been vaccinated and help to protect my daughter until she is old enough to be fully vaccinated. Unfortunately, the Bay Area has dangerously low immunization rates in many places (you can find out the immunization rate at the kindergartens in CA here), which compromises herd immunity. This month is a great time to discuss how vaccinations can protect your children from painful and often deadly diseases. In a previous post I discussed how serious a case of the measles can be, especially for babies where there is a 1-2 in 1000 chance they will die. Today I’d like to talk about the importance of the Varicella or Chickenpox Vaccine.

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Babies like my daughter rely on herd immunity to stay safe from vaccine preventable diseases

Some people think that children are given too many vaccines and often point to the chickenpox vaccine as one that is unnecessary. There is extensive evidence that the vaccine schedule suggested by the CDC and endorsed by every reputable medical organization is safe and effective so I won’t spend time on that here (see the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Vaccine Education Center or the CDC for more information). What I would like to discuss is why it is important for your child to get the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine.

Chickenpox is an unpleasant and sometimes fatal disease

If you are my age you have likely had chickenpox and probably remember the itchy bumps. Chickenpox is extremely contagious and most of us had it along with our siblings. For most children chickenpox is a mild disease, though definitely unpleasant and disruptive to school attendance and parent work schedules.  About 1 in 1000 children will get severe pneumonia, though, and before the widespread use of the chickenpox vaccine about 70 children died every year. Chickenpox is especially dangerous for babies under 1 yr old and anyone over 15. There are heartbreaking stories of babies too young to be vaccinated and adults that never got chickenpox dying from a ‘simple’ case of chickenpox. If there is a chance my baby can die from a disease I definitely want her to be vaccinated.

The virus that causes chickenpox can lead to a painful case of shingles later in life

Following a case of the chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in your body and can reappear later in life as a painful disorder, shingles. Shingles causes a painful, blistering skin rash that persists for 2-4 weeks. A common side effect of shingles is post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) where the pain from shingles lingers for months or years. Some people also experience vision loss from shingles.  About 1 in 3 Americans will get shingles in their life and there are ~1 million shingles cases in America per year. The incidence of shingles increases with age and about half of shingles cases occur in people over 60. The chickenpox vaccine uses a live but weakened strain of the virus that can still cause shingles, but at a much lower rate than the live virus. In about 40 years once the first generation vaccinated for chickenpox ages we will know the level of shingles reduction that can be gained by widespread chickenpox vaccination. For now, there is a shingles vaccine that is recommended for people over 60.

The chickenpox vaccine is very safe and side effects are usually mild

The most common side effects from the chickenpox vaccine are pain at the injection site, a low grade fever, and a rash near the injection site (rash occurs in ~4 in 100 people). The chickenpox vaccine is very safe and helps prevent your children from getting an uncomfortable and potentially deadly disease. Seeing a child get shots is often hard on parents, but you can find some evidence based tips for how to keep your child as happy as possible during routine vaccinations at the Science of Mom blog.

Want to learn more about vaccines? 

The internet contains a lot of misinformation about vaccines and it is important to get your information from trusted sources. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has a great Vaccine Education website with easy to understand information about every vaccine recommended for your child, including the dangers of your child contracting that disease and the known side effects of each vaccine. This site has been recognized for its accurate information by the World Health Organization (WHO) and is a member of WHO ‘s Vaccine Safety Net, which aims to provide accurate public health information to the public online. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also has a very good Vaccine Safety site.

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