By a show of hands, who here has had the pleasure of having varicella, more commonly known as chickenpox? Odds are if you were born in the eighties (or before) you had a run in with those intensely itchy little bumps. Being invited to a “Pox Party” to spread the virus around to the neighborhood children almost seemed like a rite of passage. Now before anyone gasps at the thought of such an event, remember that before the varicella vaccination there were an estimated 3.7 million cases in the early 1990’s alone. Children under the age of fifteen represented approximately 90% of those cases with half of all cases occurring between the ages of five and nine. To be fair, it was really a matter of when you would contract the illness, not if. For the majority of children, the highly contagious disease associated with a blister-like rash, itching, tiredness, a mild fever, and lasts approximately five to ten days. Because chickenpox is still commonly viewed as an early childhood illness, unvaccinated adolescents and adults often feel as though they are safe from contracting the disease, but don’t be fooled. Varicella can affect anyone, at any age.
So here’s the question, is it necessary to vaccinate older children and adults from varicella? Simply put, yes. Older children and adults who take on the risk of exposure and infection are just as prone to contracting the disease and are actually considered to be at higher risk for serious and possibly life-threatening complications such as, bacterial skin infections, toxic shock syndrome, pneumonia, and encephalitis (swelling of the brain). An important fact to remember, a majority of people who have died from the disease were considered to be healthy before they acquired chickenpox.
According to Dr. Julie Boom, director of the Immunization Project and assistant professor of pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital as well as an associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine, “Vaccination is important for adolescents and adults because as you get older you are more likely to have severe side effects; particularly varicella pneumonia which can be deadly.” She goes on to say:
“People under estimate chickenpox; it is a potentially devastating disease that claims the lives of both children and adults every year.”
Dr. Boom also explains that as an added bonus of immunization, “people who have received the recommended chickenpox vaccination also have a decreased incidence of shingles later in life,” and she encourages anyone in their late teens and beyond or who contracted varicella prior to the age of one to get vaccinated.
The misconception of chickenpox as a childhood illness that is merely a nuisance requiring a few days rest is a dangerous interpretation of the disease and its possible outcomes. The truth is varicella does not discriminate based on age and anyone who is unvaccinated is susceptible to this vaccine-preventable disease. While chickenpox was a minor inconvenience for many of us as children, there is no longer a need to suffer through the illness and take on a list of life-threatening complications that can occur as a result. Don’t let age be an excuse to be unprotected.