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Should the Chickenpox Vaccine be offered to all Children?

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Do you remember having chickenpox as a child? Many of us will recall the small pink bumps which later crusted over forming itchy uncomfortable scabs.

These days the chances of getting chickenpox can be limited by a vaccine, which is 90 per cent effective for children and 75 per cent effective for adults.

But unlike countries such as America, Canada, Japan and Germany, the vaccine is not routinely given to children under the Irish health service and must be purchased privately from a doctor or a pharmacy.

This has been called into question in recent months following the hospitalisation of a number of children, both here and in the UK, with serious complications arising from the virus.

Secondary illnesses can include bacterial infections of the skin, the soft tissues, the bones, the joints or the bloodstream. In severe cases, it can also lead to pneumonia and inflammation of the brain (encephalitis).

Child with chickenpox

Just a few weeks ago, Consultant Dr Karina Butler, who works in Our Lady's Hospital Crumlin and Temple Street, told the Oireachtas Health Committee there was an urgent need to make the vaccination available to all children.

"People have the wrong idea about chickenpox,” she told the committee.

“Just this week, I have treated four children who were hospitalised with serious complications. When they get chickenpox, they are not just vulnerable to its complications but also that of invasive bacteria,” she added.

"There is a safe and licensed vaccine and I have to ask why are we not using it.”

So should you rush out and get your children vaccinated as soon as possible?

Before panicking, it’s worth noting that not all health experts agree with this thinking.

Girl with chickenpox

Dr Neil Reddy of Precision Healthcare says that, some people are at higher risk of getting chickenpox than others. For example, very young babies, pregnant women and people with a weakened immune system.

But generally, chickenpox is uncomplicated and especially for children, who generally suffer with it less than adults.

“In most cases, a child will present with a fever and a rash. However, after a few days, the symptoms begin to subside. It is uncommon to get complications from chickenpox,” he says.

The vaccine also contains a live virus, he says, which may cause short-term discomfort and a rash. It may also rarely result in a dormant virus causing shingles later in life.

Chickenpox vaccine

Dr Reddy says the Irish government has adopted a ‘targeted’ approach to provision of the vaccine.

“Rather than providing the chickenpox vaccine as part of a series of vaccines for all children, it’s given to those at higher risk,” he says.

This includes health workers who have not had chickenpox.

Pregnant women are advised against getting the vaccine, but Dr Reddy says any women planning to get pregnant, who has never had chickenpox, should be immunised up to three months in advance of her pregnancy if a blood test reveals no immunity to the infection.

He also advises that if someone in a household is undergoing chemotherapy and has a lowered immune system, then the children in the house may be vaccinated in order not to pass on the virus.

And chickenpox is highly contagious. According to the HSE, nine out of 10 non-immune people are likely to get it from being in close proximity to an infected person.

The incubation period for the virus is 10-14 days, but the person is able to pass on the virus from two days before the rash appears.

While it’s important to be aware of the disease and whether or not you are at a risk of contracting it, the important thing says Dr Reddy is not to panic. He suggests talking to your GP about the best treatment for your child.