This disease used to be extremely common in childhood, although is now rarely seen following the introduction of vaccination in the childhood vaccination schedule in the past 15 years.
The illness is often underestimated but can have serious complications, especially in adults.
Symptoms of varicella take between 10 and 21 days to show after exposure. The main symptoms are fever, tiredness and a widespread itchy rash which turns into open lesions. These crust over then usually disappear, occasionally leaving scars. Complications of chicken pox include, secondary bacterial infection of the lesions, pneumonia, meningitis and encephalitis (brain infection). Varicella in pregnancy can have devastating consequences for the unborn child.
Older travellers may have a history of the illness as a child which gives them lasting protection. Younger travellers should have been vaccinated as a child. An adult dose is often recommended for prolonged protection. Those in between may be highest risk of adult chicken pox. Blood testing can be done when in doubt. Vaccination as an adult involves two doses. The vaccine is generally safe and long lasting.
Most Australians have either had the disease or been vaccinated. If neither of these applies, then vaccination should be considered.
Since the illness can severely interrupt travel plans and is highly contagious (many airlines ban those with an obvious chicken pox rash from boarding the plane), blood testing can be arranged for those who are not sure if they had the disease in childhood.
Optimal vaccination consists of a course of two injections, at least one month apart.
Varicella virus can reactivate many years after the initial infection and cause shingles (herpes zoster). This can be an extremely painful condition, especially in the elderly, where pain may persist in a localised area for months or years after the rash has gone. A new vaccine is partially effective in preventing shingles and subsequent pain in adults over 60. It is currently free for those between 70-80 years old.
Those with proven immunity or two prior vaccines do not need further vaccination
Both chickenpox and shingles vaccine should not be given to those who are immune suppressed (either through illness or medication) or pregnant, as they are live vaccines.