My boys are just finishing up a bout of the chicken pox (a.k.a. varicella). They came by it naturally (most likely at a family party where a number of school age kids were present). While it may not have been up there on my list of ways to spend a week, I do think it was important that they got sick and recovered.
It’s not that I have warm fuzzy memories of chickenpox as a child. (Some vaccine proponents have accused non-vaccinating parents of being enamored with childhood disease.) Actually, I see it as the logical step to protect not only my children, but the public at large.
Here in America, the CDC tells us that before the introduction of the chickenpox vaccine in 1995 that 100-150 people died every year from varicella. When teenagers or adults contract chickenpox, the disease tends to be more severe. This is why the CDC says that we need to vaccinate all children for chickenpox. Their website even gives a case study of a 15 year old girl who was not vaccinated for chickenpox who contracted the disease and died. The CDC says that this is proof of why teenagers must be vaccinated for chickenpox as well. And when chickenpox doesn’t circulate, infections with shingles tend to hit older adults, so to solve that problem, older adults are said to need a shingles vaccine.
If you go across the pond and read the information from the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, you’ll hear a very different story about chickenpox vaccination. In the UK, the varicella vaccine is not given routinely because health officials are concerned that it would cause the chickenpox virus to infect more teens and adults, which can often be more severe. Health officials in the UK are also concerned about the lack of chickenpox virus leading to more frequent infections with shingles. So while in America public health officials look at an incident of a teenager dying from varicella and say this is why more vaccination is needed, in the United Kingdom public health officials say that this exactly the kind of thing they are trying to avoid and the answer is to allow chickenpox to circulate freely among children, who almost always recover quickly and easily.
A couple of interesting things come out from the research on chickenpox deaths in the UK. The UK has had a pretty consistent rate of approximately 25 varicella deaths each year. The study noted that people born in tropical climates seem to be at an especially high risk for serious complications from varicella and their bodies seem to react differently to the virus than those of people born in Europe and America.
But what about those 100-150 people who used to die every year from chickenpox before the vaccine was introduced? Consider this: the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program paid out 173 awards for vaccine injury and death in 2010, 251 awards in 2011, 250 awards in 2012 and 375 in 2013. In other words, it’s roughly twice as likely that someone will be seriously harmed by a vaccine and be able to prove it in court than die from varicella. So ask yourself, what is the true public health threat?