British Children Vaccinated against Varicella (Chickenpox)

Chickenpox is a childhood illness with which most of us are familiar. Most children in the UK will have to ensure the infection at some point, and after a few days of discomfort they will recover and possess immunity against any future chickenpox infections. There are vaccinations available against the virus that causes chickenpox, but the NHS childhood vaccination scheme does not vaccinate children against the disease. In this article we look at why that is the case.

The chickenpox infection

Chickenpox is caused by a virus called varicella (or to give it its full name, the varicella zoster virus (VZV). The condition is extremely contagious, which is why once a child has encountered it at a school for example, almost every child they come into contact with will catch the illness.

The disease itself presents with a very characteristic rash which is usually concentrated on the head and body. The rash eventually becomes extremely itchy which is a source of great discomfort, however the disease quickly resolves about a week after the rash first presents.

VZV spreads quickly through airborne droplets, and is infectious in the 2 days before a rash appears. Because it is airborne, it spreads very quickly.

Chickenpox is extremely mild in children, and beyond a few days with an itchy rash, they tend to come out of the disease perfectly fine and with the benefit of being immune against the varicella virus.

Why are children not vaccinated against varicella?

Because of how contagious and mild the disease is, about 90% of adults in the UK will have encountered the disease and become immune to chicken pox in their childhood. This is one of the reasons why vaccinations against the disease are not widely used here in the UK.

Vaccination is also avoided because it might increase the chance of an adult developing shingles. Shingles is a condition that kicks in long after the body has been exposed to chickenpox. The virus can remain dormant in our nervous tissue, made up of important cells that carry signals across our body. After some time the virus can be re-activated, and cause an infection called herpes zoster, aka shingles.

So who does get the chickenpox vaccine?

Adults who have not suffered from chickenpox as children are vulnerable to the infection when they are older. A chickenpox infection can have more serious complications amongst adults, which is why if an adult has not been previously exposed to chicken pox they may be entitled to a vaccination. Health care workers or people involved with others who suffer from a weakened immune system who have not suffered from chickenpox are advised to take up the vaccine to prevent its transmission.

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