Varicella (Chickenpox) Vaccine

Many adults remember having had chickenpox as a child.  We considered it a mild disease, and everyone we knew got it as a young child.  Usually a whole family’s kids would get it in short order.  It was uncomfortable, but it passed pretty quickly and then you were done for life.  I remember having it on the way up to our summer house in upstate NY (complete with a potbelly stove for heat and an outhouse for the first few years until we installed a bathroom).

While all of this is mostly true, it misses some important details:

  • While most people have mild disease, about 1% of infected patients are hospitalized
  • About 1% of those hospitalized (or 1 in 10,000 patients who get it) die from a fatal complication
  • Immunocompromised patients (think newborns, cancer, chemo, the elderly, those on steroids) have high complication rates
  • Chickenpox in kids=home from school with a parent until the illness is gone
  • Now with less stay-at-home parents, 2 weeks at home with a sick child can cost a lot

The vaccine for varicella (chickenpox) was licensed in 1995.  Since then, we have seen varicella rates in the U.S. plummet, along with its complications.  It has also made life easier in pediatricians’ offices – children who have just developed the fever of chickenpox often have no other symptoms, and were commonly brought to the doctor to be checked (and often more than once).  Imagine all of those highly contagious children walking around newborns and sick children in our waiting rooms!

A lot of people were skeptical of the varicella vaccine at first, as many saw this as a “lifestyle” vaccine, not one that stopped serious illnesses, like polio.  In a way, that was true – although any fatalities are too awful to think about for the families affected, this vaccine was in part approved because it saved money: not money spent on medical care, but money in lost productivity (in terms of school and work missed).

Although this is one of the major vaccines that non-vaxxers object to (think “chicken pox parties”), the vaccine is safe and effective, and the series is completed in only 2 doses.  Since it is often combined wit MMR vaccine, children often get a 4-in-1 combo called MMRV.

U.S. Schedule

  • dose 1 at 12-15 months old (often combined with MMR as MMRV)
  • dose 2 at 4-6 years old (often combined with MMR as MMRV)

Author: marcgrella

Primary care pediatrician; vaccine advocate; hunger fighter; refugee supporter.

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