Vaccinate Against Chickenpox?

By Melissa Tennen

Three-year-old Christopher died. Not from a car accident, an accidental drowning or some mysterious disease. He came down with chickenpox.

“I really beat myself up,” said Victoria Serrano, his mother and a pediatric pharmacist. “Here, I’m supposed to be competent in my knowledge about pediatrics, and I didn’t know.”

Serrano isn’t the only parent who didn’t know chickenpox might kill. Nearly 50 percent of parents in a recent survey said they didn’t realize chickenpox could lead to life-threatening pneumonia, encephalitis and skin infections among adults and children.

That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urge parents to get the shot for their children. At least 100 people die each year because of chickenpox complications, the CDC says. What’s more, one child out of every 500 with the illness and one adult out of every 50 are hospitalized.

Almost all parents in a survey by Harris Interactive on behalf of the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners (NAPNAP) and Merck & Co. Inc. were aware that a chickenpox vaccine is available. Yet less than two-thirds (64 percent) actually had their child vaccinated. Nearly all parents who were educated by a healthcare practitioner about the risks chose the vaccine.

But there are other advantages to getting that shot. Having an immunization for chickenpox might reduce the number of your lost workdays, your child’s missed school days, the appearance of pockmarks, not to mention that torturous itching and the risk of shingles later in life from latent virus that remains in the body. However, most schools do not require the chickenpox vaccine as they do with other shots for measles and tetanus.

“As healthcare providers, we have to do a better job with educating people,” said Tamara Tempfer, M.S.N. and NAPNAP spokeswoman.

Tempfer also said the vaccine is also important for adults who have not had the disease. Chickenpox is often more serious in adults, although experts aren’t sure why.

Who should have it?

Respected organizations such as the AAP and CDC say the millions of doses administered since 1995 (the year when the vaccine came onto the market) have shown the vaccine to be safe and effective for children. The shot has been used safely in Japan for the past 20 years and is generally considered to give lifelong protection. The AAP recommends children 12 to 18 months of age, who have not had the illness, get one dose of the vaccine. Older children should get one dose as soon as possible. For children 13 years and older who have not had chickenpox, two doses of the vaccine is recommended spaced four to eight weeks apart.

The chickenpox vaccine is not for everyone. For example, it is contraindicated in people with a history of hypersensitivity (allergic reaction) to any component of the vaccine, including eggs or gelatin.

It’s best to delay or avoid immunization when:

  • Your child is ill with anything more serious than a cold, immunization should be delayed
  • Your child has an allergy to eggs, gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin that has required medical treatment
  • Your child has received gamma globulin within the past 3 months
  • Your child has immune system problems related to cancer, leukemia or lymphoma; is taking prednisone, steroids or immunosuppressive drugs; or is undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
  • Your child is infected with HIV

Parents should talk to their healthcare provider about whether the vaccination is right for their child.

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