Should children be vaccinated against chickenpox, considering its high infectiousness and ability to affect individuals of all age groups?

Since the development of the chickenpox vaccine in the 1990s, there’s been an ongoing debate about whether it’s appropriate to immunize children against this highly infectious disease. Chickenpox, also known as varicella, is a viral illness that affects people of all ages and can cause severe complications, especially in young children and those with weakened immune systems. In this article, we’ll explore the benefits and risks of the chickenpox vaccine and whether it’s justified to vaccinate children against this common childhood ailment.

In Ireland, chickenpox vaccination is not part of the routine childhood immunisation schedule, which means many parents are unsure if their child has been vaccinated against the disease. Sheena Mitchell, a Dublin-based pharmacist, is often asked if vaccination is necessary. Mitchell explains that chickenpox is caused by the varicella zoster virus, a type of herpes virus, and is largely seasonal, peaking between January and April. While most children will get better themselves, Dr. Patrick Kelly, Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) clinical lead (immunisations), explains that a child with chickenpox may be really miserable for anywhere from a few days to a week.

Vulnerable people, such as those with immune system problems or pregnant women, may encounter serious and even life-threatening complications if they contract chickenpox. Chickenpox in pregnancy may cause a condition called congenital varicella syndrome, a condition that can lead to underdeveloped arms and legs, a small head, cataracts, growth restriction, skin scarring, and a high mortality rate. Mitchell points to evidence from the US that showed adult hospitalisations and deaths due to chickenpox reduced when the vaccine was given as part of the routine immunisation schedule.

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The vaccine used to protect children and adults against chickenpox is given in two doses – one month apart – from 12 months of age. While routinely vaccinating children against chickenpox might seem like a good idea, the discussion is nuanced. Children who contract chickenpox develop lifelong immunity against the virus, whereas immunity is thought to be shorter-lived with the vaccine. If a childhood chickenpox vaccination programme is introduced, people will not catch chickenpox as children – because the infection will no longer circulate in areas where the majority of children have been vaccinated. Unvaccinated children may be susceptible to contracting chickenpox as adults, when they could develop a more severe infection or a secondary complication such as pneumonia or encephalitis, while those vaccinated as children may need a booster vaccine later. 

Introducing chickenpox vaccination for all children could also increase the risk of shingles in adults. Shingles are caused by the same virus as chickenpox and can be quite severe in adults – children, infected with chickenpox as a child, tend to suffer a milder form of shingles as an adult. Currently, the chickenpox vaccine for children in Britain is again under review. Many parents believe that children should just “get chickenpox” and that natural infection is a better plan for avoiding the disease. Parents considering the vaccine are advised to speak to a GP or practice nurse. The vaccine and the administration of the vaccine will need to be paid for, and your GP can advise on the cost.

In conclusion, chickenpox is a highly infectious disease that can affect people of all ages. While it may seem like a harmless childhood ailment, it can have serious consequences for adults, particularly those with weakened immune systems. Vaccinating children against chickenpox can not only protect them but also those around them who may be at higher risk of complications from the disease. It is important to consult a healthcare provider and make an informed decision about vaccination. By taking the necessary precautions, we can help prevent the spread of this potentially dangerous infection.

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