Should children be vaccinated against chickenpox?
Currently the vaccine for chicken pox, Varilrix, has been available in the UK since 2013 but it is only offered to those who are likely to come into contact with the illness.
Chickenpox infects 65% of children in the country before their fifth birthday. It is caused by a virus, varicella-zoster, which causes a rash of red and itchy spots which turn into blisters. It can range from being mild to causing serious problems such as pneumonia or brain swelling. It claims the lives of around 10 children every year.
The UK is one of the only countries which does not routinely vaccinate against chickenpox whereas Europe, the US and Australia all do.
However, a mother who was told her son had the ‘worst case of chickenpox ever seen’ has now created a petition for all children to be vaccinated against the illness. Sarah Allen wants the vaccine to become part of the NHS’s routine immunisation schedule after her 2-year-old son, Jasper, was hospitalised for 5 days with his entire body covered in chickenpox.
Doctors considered contacting medical journals as they had never seen such an extreme case. He was put on an IV drip and given antiviral medication and antibiotics for 5 days which helped his body to fight the virus.
Mrs Allen went on to say:
"It shouldn't have affected a healthy two-year-old as badly as it did – imagine how it could have affected a child with a compromised immune system."
Like many parents, Mrs Allen couldn’t wait for Jasper to get chickenpox so it would be out of the way. She didn't think there would be any harm to him but once she saw how the disease took over her son's body she realised how dangerous it could be.
Even though children are routinely vaccinated in other parts of the world, the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation in 2010 decided the vaccine should not be rolled out to all children. It is thought if a childhood vaccination programme was introduced; it would leave those without more likely to contract the illness as an adult. If adults contract the infection then they are more likely to develop a severe infection that can lead to pneumonia, or for the immunocompromised, can develop septicaemia or meningitis. During pregnancy, chickenpox can spell disaster for the unborn baby and then there is shingles, like all herpes viruses, varicella never really goes away, and the pain of shingles can be agonising and remain for weeks.
In response to the petition, a Department of Health spokesperson has said that chickenpox is usually a mild illness in children with most recovering quickly.
He went on to say,:
“Our vaccination experts currently only recommend the chickenpox vaccine for people who are at risk of serious illness or in close contact with those at risk. Those at risk can include some health workers or children with family members who are undergoing medical treatments such as chemotherapy which can affect their immunity."
A small minority of parents refuse to give their children the jab and many in the medical community believe this explains the reluctance of the authorities to introduce an injection into the childhood immunisation schedule.
Professor Adam Finn, consultant in paediatric infectious diseases at Bristol Royal Hospital for children says:
"The fact is parents who should be able to protect their child against chickenpox, an entirely preventable disease, are being held hostage by a small minority. Chickenpox is a disease which causes children agony, stops them going to school and if they are already sick then it can be very severe. At a small cost we could be rid of it."
In healthy children, serious complications are not common, but in children whose immune systems are compromised, chickenpox can be a real problem leading to complications or even death.
The jury is still out of whether a chickenpox vaccine would indeed increase the incidence of shingles, a reactivation of the dormant virus which can cause severe and persistent pain in adults. The theory is that once a person has had chickenpox, every time they come into contact with an infected youngster their body's defence system receives the equivalent of a booster jab, building up resistance against the disease. If children no longer harboured the disease, a rise in shingles could follow, although data from other countries where the chickenpox vaccine is established has yet to produce compelling evidence on this.
Even though the chickenpox vaccine is desirable, after much debate it has still not been introduced in the country. With Sarah Allen's petition already attracting over 3000 signatures we are yet to see whether the Government will respond to her request, forcing the topic to be considered for debate in Parliament.
By Amrita Patel, Paralegal
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