Chickenpox deaths down significantly since vaccine, says CDC

Chickenpox vaccine has dramatically cut deaths from the disease, especially in children, says a new government study proclaiming an important public health victory.

Chickenpox is caused by a virus and is highly contagious. Symptoms include an itchy skin rash and fever. Most kids suffer no more than that, but some suffer complications like skin infections, swelling of the brain and pneumonia. Severe cases are more common among adolescents and adults who get it for the first time. Also, the virus — called varicella — can reactivate in people later in life and cause a painful illness called shingles.

Most children with chickenpox act sick with symptoms such as a fever, headache, tummy ache or loss of appetite for a day or two before breaking out in the classic pox rash. These symptoms last 2 to 4 days after breaking out.

The average child develops 250 to 500 small, itchy, fluid-filled blisters over red spots on the skin. The blisters often appear first on the face, trunk or scalp and spread from there. Appearance of the small blisters on the scalp usually confirms the diagnosis. After a day or two, the blisters become cloudy and then scab. Meanwhile, new crops of blisters spring up in groups. The pox often appear in the mouth, in the vagina and on the eyelids.

Some children who have had the vaccine will still develop a mild case of chickenpox. They usually recover much more quickly and have only a few pox (less than 30). These cases are often harder to diagnose. However, these children can still spread chickenpox to others.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that chickenpox deaths fell from an average of 105 per year to 14 after the vaccine had been available for a dozen years.

Deaths declined in all age groups, but the drop was most significant among children.

“To see the near elimination of chickenpox deaths in this country is very exciting,” said Jane Seward, a CDC official who co-authored the paper. She has been involved in the agency’s chickenpox vaccine program for 15 years.

While rarely fatal, chickenpox was very common before the vaccine, nearly one in 10 pre-adolescent children would get it in a year, said Dr. Eugene Shapiro, a Yale University expert in infectious disease.

In 1995, the government first recommended that all children get a dose of chickenpox vaccine. One dose turned out to be about 86 percent effective. A second dose is now recommended.

The new CDC study looked at national records for deaths attributed to chickenpox. In the five years before the vaccine, an average of 105 Americans died of the virus annually. By 2007, 12 years after the vaccine, the annual death toll had dropped to 14, and almost all were adults.

The vaccine deserves credit for the decline in children’s deaths, Seward said. It’s also likely cut adult deaths because there are fewer infected children around to spread it to adults, she added.

Several questions remain though that wasn’t addressed in the article and something that the CDC has yet to bring into their research. What about the increase in available medical care for people suffering from Chickenpox? Wouldn’t the advances in healthcare help decrease deaths due to the virus? Seems pretty likely.

Or how about better nutrition? Definitely seems to be a realistic possibility for the decrease? Why aren’t these very obvious reasons for a decrease openly discussed and shared with the public?

Neither the article nor the study focus on the potential adverse effects with this vaccination.

This report was released online July 25, 2011 by the journal Pediatrics.

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