This disease used to be extremely common in childhood, although is now rarely seen following the introduction of vaccination into 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 rash which turns into open lesions. These crust over then usually disappear, occasionally leaving scars.
Complications of the disease may include:
• bacterial infection of the lesions
• difficulty walking and balancing
• meningitis (infection of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord); and
• encephalitis (brain infection)
Who should be vaccinated?
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.
What about the new shingles vaccine?
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 (Zostavax) is partially effective in preventing shingles and subsequent pain adults over 60. It is currently free for those between 70-80 years old.
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 virus vaccines.