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No More Chicken Pox?

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

It is always good news when I read research based studies that validate that vaccines are one of the most important advances in public health.  Case in point: a recent article in Pediatrics entitled, “Near Elimination of Varicella Deaths in the U.S. after Implementation of the Vaccination Program”. Confirmation how well a vaccine can work.

When I first started practicing, I saw a lot of cases of varicella (chickenpox). My oldest two sons both had chickenpox, and spent several days and long nights with fever, itching, lots of pox and a few scars to show for their illness  (I told them not to scratch!).

By the time my third son came along, the chickenpox vaccine was being given in Japan and it was in trials in the U.S. But, the winter that I saw a child come into my office and die of complications secondary to chickenpox made me even more anxious for the vaccine to be approved.

Many of my friends said, “what is the big deal, it is just chickenpox”, but they had not seen that perfectly healthy two year old die in our office as five doctors tried to save him, while his parents watched in bewilderment that their son could be SO SICK from “just the chickenpox”. I will never forget it.

The only thing I could think of is “when is the vaccine going to be released in the U.S.?”  I just wanted my youngest son to be vaccinated rather than deal with the anxiety that he “could” die from varicella. As it turned out, the vaccine was released shortly after our patient’s death, and my son received the first dose of vaccine when it arrived! I am sure that the parents of this deceased child only wished the vaccine had been several months earlier.

Well, this article looked at data from the 12 years since the vaccine was approved. It showed a 97% reduction in varicella deaths among children and adolescents younger than 20 years of age. In the last 6 years of data analyzed (2002 – 2007) there were a total of 3 deaths among children 1 -4 years, and 5 – 9 years, as compared to 13-16 deaths for each age group during pre-vaccine years.

The conclusion of this study was that the “impressive decline in varicella deaths can be directly attributed to successful implementation of the 1-dose vaccine program.” Now that we are routinely giving a second dose of varicella vaccine, it may be possible to eliminate all deaths secondary to chickenpox.  Could there be any better news?

I know that the parents of that little boy back in 1994 must be thrilled that we have had such success with the chickenpox vaccine. They must only wish that the vaccine had been approved and licensed a year earlier. Vaccinate your children, it is the best insurance there is.

That’s your daily dose for today.  We’ll chat again tomorrow.

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