< Jul. 27, 2011 > -- Chickenpox and its itchy rash were once almost a rite of childhood - but this illness could also be deadly, claiming the lives of more than 100 children each year.
A new study has found that the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine, introduced in the mid-1990s, has nearly ended the fatalities associated with the illness.
"This is one of our success stories," says Charles Shubin, M.D., at the University of Maryland.
The vaccine cut deaths from chickenpox by 88 percent across all age groups and by 97 percent in people 20 years old and younger.
The varicella vaccine is given in two doses at least three months apart, when a child is between 1 and 12 years old. Although the second dose wasn't recommended until 2006, the number of deaths began declining almost immediately after the single-dose vaccine was first offered in 1995. The two-dose regimen may eliminate deaths from chickenpox altogether, the researchers say.
The study will be published in the August issue of the journal Pediatrics.
"The risks of varicella and its complications are real, and the risks of vaccine are minimal," says Gail Demmler-Harrison, M.D., at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
Because of the vaccine, she says, "we don't see severe varicella anymore. There is a common misconception that chickenpox is a benign inconvenience of childhood, but it almost always leaves lasting footprints."
Some parents in recent years have refused to vaccinate their children, mostly because of unfounded fears of a link between autism and the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. As a result, diseases such as measles are making a comeback.
Experts say they hope the findings from this report will reassure anxious parents and alert them to the life-saving benefits of varicella vaccination.
Researchers still don't know if the two doses given during childhood will be enough to protect them against shingles when they are older adults. Shingles occurs when the varicella-zoster virus is reactivated later in life. Currently, adults ages 60 and older - whether they had chickenpox or not - can get vaccinated against shingles.
"We don't know if immunization in childhood is going to make a difference in adult shingles because it hasn't been long enough," Dr. Shubin says.
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Symptoms of chickenpox are usually mild among youngsters but may be life-threatening to adults and people with impaired immune systems. The following are the most common symptoms of chickenpox:
- Fatigue and irritability one to two days before the rash begins
- Itchy rash on the trunk, face, scalp, under the armpits, on the upper arms and legs, and inside the mouth
- Decreased appetite
- Muscle or joint pain
- Cough or runny nose
The symptoms of chickenpox may resemble other skin problems. If a person who has been vaccinated against the disease is exposed to the chickenpox virus, he or she may get a milder illness with less severe rash and mild or no fever.
Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.