The vast majority of you reading this article, whether you remember it or not, will have gone through the itchy agony of chickenpox. Many of us have been left with scars from spots our parents couldn’t quite stop us itching, but not all children and parents today need to experience chickenpox distress. This is due to the chickenpox vaccine.
What is Chickenpox?
Chickenpox is generally relatively mild and only lasts between 5 and 10 days. In rare cases though, it can be very serious and even life-threatening to a small subsection of infants, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. Although anybody can develop serious complications, there is no way to predict who will.
Chickenpox itself is highly contagious and can be spread through direct contact or through the air by sneezing and coughing. It can also be contracted through contact with fluid from chickenpox blisters.
The symptoms of chickenpox are generally an itchy rash that forms between 200 and 500 blisters over the entire body. Besides the rash, symptoms can include headaches, coughing and general discomfort that usually lasts between five and ten days.
What is the Chickenpox vaccine?
The vaccine gives those who receive it protection against the chickenpox infection. Whilst those who receive it will still contract it, the symptoms they will experience will be milder. Two doses of the vaccine give about 98% protection in children and about 75% protection in teenagers and adults according to the Vaccine Knowledge Project at the University of Oxford.
How does the Chickenpox vaccine work?
A live, attenuated (weakened) strain of the varicella-zoster (chickenpox) virus is injected which stimulates an immune response but does not cause the disease in healthy people.
It is this reaction that enables vaccinated people to become immune or protected from the chickenpox virus, ensuring that they do not develop the full-blown disease at a future point.
30-year-old female with acute chickenpox infection
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Who should have the Chickenpox vaccine?
Who has access to the vaccine varies significantly depending on which country you reside:
In the United States, the vaccine is recommended for all children under the age of 13 who have not had chickenpox, as well as all adolescents and adults who have not been vaccinated and have not had chickenpox.
Australia has a similar system, where the vaccine is free for all children at age 18 months under the National Immunisation Program (NIP). In New Zealand, the vaccine is recommended and funded for children turning 15 months and for children turning 11 years of age who have never been infected with or previously immunised against chickenpox.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, the NHS has not included the chickenpox vaccine as part of the routine childhood schedule. Instead, it only recommends it for those in close contact with people who are particularly at risk of complications from chickenpox such as healthcare workers who are not immune to the disease or those without a fully working immune system.
Is the Chickenpox vaccine safe?
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “The chickenpox vaccine is very safe, and it is effective at preventing chickenpox. Vaccines, like any medicine, can have side effects. Most people who get chickenpox vaccine do not have any problems with it. The vaccine is usually given in two doses. Side effects are more likely after the first dose than after the second.”
The common side effects of the Chickenpox vaccine are:
- Sore arm from the injection
- Mild rash
- Temporary pain and stiffness in the joints
Because the chickenpox vaccine is live, there is also an extremely small risk that a recipient could pass on the virus who is not immune to chickenpox. The person who has been vaccinated may also, in some cases, develop a localised chickenpox type rash around the site of the injection or elsewhere on the body.
According to the Vaccine Knowledge Project at the University of Oxford, “The chickenpox vaccine should not be given to people who are clinically immunosuppressed (either due to drug treatment or underlying illness). This is because the vaccine strain could replicate too much and cause a serious infection. This includes babies whose mothers have had immunosuppressive treatment while they were pregnant or breastfeeding.
Left shoulder of elderly man with chickenpox, showing the complications of developing the disease at a later age.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The chickenpox vaccine is not recommended for pregnant women as a matter of caution. Women who have had the vaccine are advised to avoid getting pregnant for one month after vaccination. However, studies have been carried out on pregnant women who have accidentally received chickenpox vaccine before they knew they were pregnant. These have not shown any link between the weakened virus in the vaccine and any specific problems in babies born to these women.”
Multiple studies have shown that the vaccine virus does not pass to babies through breast milk, so it is, therefore, safe for breastfeeding women to be vaccinated. For further information on all the above, see this Public Health England statement
Other skin diseases
Whilst the chickenpox vaccine is a great step in reducing the numbers of children suffering from this condition, there are still many that there are sadly no vaccinations for. This still includes everything from psoriasis to skin cancer.
Whilst no vaccine is available, pre-emptive protection and early diagnosis can mean all the difference in the world. Our guide on How to Protect Kids from Skin Cancer gives all the information you need to know on the best way to protect your little ones.
Early skin cancer diagnosis
The most dangerous types of skin lesions are skin cancer moles. Normal moles are natural and do no harm. But they always pose a certain risk: if a mole changes in colour, size or form it can be dangerous due to skin cancer risk. Make sure to have a mole checked out if you don’t trust it. A quick, easy and reliable way to do this for your entire family is through the SkinVision service. 1.3 million people globally trust SkinVision to help them monitor their skin from the comfort of their own home. The service has already found over 27,000 skin cancers and helped save the lives of both adults and children.