Varicella (Chicken Pox) Vaccine

We always appreciate the opportunity to educate our Kids Plus Families and Facebook followers on a multitude of subjects. An exchange that followed yesterday’s post about the success of the Varicella (Chicken Pox) vaccine inspired me to write this note, which I hope will provide some important information and perspective.

First, here are some facts about Varicella disease in the US prior to vaccination:

• 100 deaths per year

• 12,000 hospitalizations per year (most due to secondary bacterial skin infections and related complications)

• Millions of days of missed school for kids and work for parents, with an estimated cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

Chicken Pox is still a common (and unpleasant) memory for many parents born into, and even after, the Baby Boomer generation. Most kids got Chicken Pox, were miserable, survived, got better in about two weeks, and did not suffer long-term consequences. 100 deaths a year out of several million cases might not seem so bad — unless, of course, one of those hundred is your child. Or your friend. Or your family member.

Those 12,000 hospitalizations each year might not seem so bad either — until you realize how many of those kids went on to have severe secondary infections of their skin, their lungs, and their brains, or until you realize that many of these patients had severe, life-long complications if they survived those infections. And we haven’t even talked about all the immunocompromised children and adults who each year were at risk to die from a common Varicella infection.

Some of the resistance to and skepticism of the Varicella vaccine is rooted in the notion that Chicken Pox is not a serious enough or deadly enough disease to warrant vaccination. The numbers I just gave you are more than enough to refute that argument. But even 1 case of any of those things — a severe secondary infection, a hospitalization, and certainly a death — is more than we should accept from what is a highly preventable disease.

Another root of resistance and skepticism is the notion that having Chicken Pox produces a “natural,” life-long immunity. This is true, of course, so long as:

1. You survive the primary disease

2. You don’t contract a severe secondary infection

3. You don’t need to be immunosuppressed by cancer treatments or need of a transplant.

Varicella vaccinations, as currently supported by the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics, are effectively and dramatically reducing cases of this (again, highly preventable) disease. As that new study released yesterday has noted, the Varicella vaccinations have greatly reduced — by about 97% — the number of deaths caused by Varicella infection. And the vaccine’s cumulative effect is accentuated at a general population level, via herd immunity.

Might another booster be recommended in 25 years? Possibly. But, given the findings of current, evidence-based medicine in the United States and Japan, I’m guessing not. And I’m someone who — metaphorically, professionally, and literally — has skin in the game.

As a child, I never had Chicken Pox. So when I was in med school — let’s just say about twenty years ago — I was one of the first people in the United States to receive the vaccine. So if there is some sort of waning immunity that will one day require another booster, I’m at risk with all the kids we see and treat and immunize. But I’m betting on the vaccine, the research, and good public health policy to keep me safe. And every day, I’m thankful for the the many illnesses, infections, and deaths that they prevent.

Dr. Todd Wolynn, the President & CEO of Kids Plus Pediatrics, lectures nationally on the subject of immunizations.