The other day the mom of one of my ten-month-old patients called and asked, “What do you think about me taking him to a chicken pox party instead of getting the vaccine?” This is a question that comes up occasionally, and has a clear, easy answer. Don’t do it! Vaccinate your kids against varicella. Here’s why.
- Varicella can be a serious illness. A lot of us remember having chicken pox as a child and coming out of it relatively unscathed. So, why the vaccine? There are a number of reasons. The truth is that varicella varies greatly in severity. It is most often a relatively mild febrile illness with a rash. But it can also cause pneumonia, dehydration, severe skin infection, and encephalitis. About 1 in 500 unvaccinated children who are infected with varicella will need care in the hospital. During the pre-vaccine era, about 100 people died each year from this disease. Why take this kind of risk by intentionally exposing your child?
- There are some people for whom varicella is particularly dangerous. Very young infants and adolescents/adults are more likely to have complications from varicella than school age children. A woman who contracts varicella early in pregnancy can pass the virus to her fetus, which leads to small risk of congenital varicella syndrome. If a baby is born around the time that its mother has chicken pox, it can develop neonatal varicella infection. Finally, immunocompromised children or adults, such as those with leukemia or HIV, are at particular risk for severe course or complications from the illness.
This is why the vaccine was developed. We protect ourselves, our children, and our communities.
- The varicella vaccine has been recommended for use in the United States since 1995. Since 2006 we have been giving the first dose between 12-18 months, and a “booster” prior to school entry. Two doses are recommended because it has been found that while the majority of people are immune to varicella after one vaccination, the rate of immunity approaches 100% after the second dose. Older children and adults who have not had chicken pox or the vaccine should also be immunized. If you have a weakened immune system due to illness or medication, talk with your doctor about whether you are a candidate for vaccination.
- The varicella vaccine works. Prior to widespread use of the varicella vaccine, there were 3-4 million cases in the United States each year. Just last week the CDC released figures showing that there was an 80% decline in cases between 2000-2010, with the steepest decline occurring after the two vaccine regimen began. This is a remarkable success.
- The varicella vaccine is much safer than getting the illness. The majority of children or adults who get the vaccination have only minor pain at the injection site. Like any immunization or medication, there is a risk of side effects, but in this case more serious side effects are extremely rare. Approximately 5% of children will have a rash 1-3 weeks after receiving the vaccination. This rash is typically quite mild (2-10 lesions total) and resolves on its own.
So, please, vaccinate your family against varicella. Please don’t send your kids to a “pox party” or, even worse, give them a “pox pop.” You’ll save your family a week of general miserableness, or worse. Your child will miss less school. You’ll help to protect members of your community who cannot receive the immunization, some of whom would potentially become quite sick if exposed.
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