Chickenpox is a highly infectious viral disease also known as varicella. In many countries, this disease is known only as “varicella.” It causes a blister-like rash, itching, fatigue and fever. The rash appears first on the face and trunk and can spread over the entire body resulting in 250 to 500 itching blisters. Chickenpox is highly infectious as it spreads from person to person by direct contact or through the air by coughing or sneezing. It takes from 10-21 days (the “incubation period”) after contact with an infected person to develop chickenpox. People with chickenpox are contagious a day or two before the rash appears and until all blisters have formed scabs. In children, chickenpox most commonly causes an illness that lasts about 5-10 days. Infected children usually miss 5 or 6 days of school or childcare due to chickenpox. Symptoms may include high fever, severe itching, an uncomfortable rash, dehydration, and headache. About one child in 10 has a complication from chickenpox — infected skin lesions, other infections, dehydration from vomiting or diarrhea, exacerbation (worsening) of asthma and pneumonia — serious enough to warrant a visit to the doctor. Certain people are especially likely to have a serious illness from chickenpox. These risk groups include infants, adolescents, adults — anyone with a weak immune system from either illnesses or from medications such long-term steroids or chemotherapy.
Chickenpox has nothing to do with chickens. The name was meant to distinguish this “weak” form of the pox from smallpox. “Chicken” is used here, as in “chickenhearted,” to mean weak or timid. The not-so-chicken pox is Small Pox. The “pox” of chickenpox is no major matter unless it becomes infected (through scratching) or occurs in an immunodeficient person. However, there can be very major problems from chickenpox including pneumonia and encephalitis and reactivation of the same herpes virus causes for shingles (zoster). Chickenpox is responsible for more deaths than measles (rubeola), mumps, whooping cough (pertussis) and H. flu (Haemophilus influenzae type B) meningitis combined. Despite popular perceptions, chickenpox is not a mild disease and even a healthy person can die from the disease. From 1990 to 1994, before there was a vaccine available, there were about 50 chickenpox deaths in children and 50 chickenpox deaths in adults every year in the US. Most of these people were healthy or did not have a medical illness such as cancer that placed them at higher risk of getting severe chickenpox. Most of the healthy adults who die from chickenpox contract the disease from their unvaccinated children.
The vaccination currently involves only one shot, given at about one year of age. If an older person has not had chickenpox, the shot may be given at any time. Bearing in mind that without vaccine there are about 100 deaths from complications of chicken pox per year in a population of about 300 million (that’s one out of three million) and keeping in mind the side-effects and dangers of vaccines, and the fact that chicken pox itself gives immunity to further illess from this virus, parents must choose to vaccinate or not.