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    Childhood Illnesses Up Close: Chicken Pox

    March 6, 2008 by Brandy Vencel

    Did you contract chicken pox as a child? I know I did. It was a basic thing to do in childhood. Adults were worried about you if you didn’t get it when you were little. They said it was much worse to get it as an adult. I remember that it itched and made icky red spots on my skin that I was repeatedly reminded not to scratch. I don’t remember being all that miserable, I don’t remember it lasting all that long, and I don’t remember any of the children I knew at the time having their lives threatened by it. Most importantly, I remember being told that if you got it once, you’d never get it again {unless there was something really wrong with you}.

    But let’s see if what I think I remember is entirely, or even remotely, accurate.

    What is chicken pox?

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention {CDC}, the disease is caused by the varicella zoster virus. Symptoms include

    A skin rash of blister-like lesions, covering the body but usually more concentrated on the face, scalp, and trunk. Most, but not all, infected individuals have fever, which develops just before or when the rash appears. If exposed, persons who have been vaccinated against the disease may get a milder illness, with less severe rash {sometimes involving only a few red bumps that look similar to insect bites} and mild or no fever.

    Chicken pox is, according to Dr. Anthony Papadopoulos, air born, which surprised me. Apparently, a person can contract the infection by touching the sores of an infected person, but this sort of thing is rare. What is more common is catching chicken pox from “contaminated respiratory droplets” much in the way one would catch a cold or flu virus.

    In my research, I didn’t find any evidence that chicken pox itself is all that dangerous. Issues arise when there are complications. In normal, healthy children, complications are rare, usually “manifesting as impetigo, cellulitis, or erysipelas.” Around 1 in 80,000 healthy children who get chickenpox die as a result of the disease. In rare cases, “[l]ocalized bacterial superinfection may…result in septicemia, culminating in a secondary bacterial pneumonia, otitis media, or necrotizing fasciitis.” I am assuming these rare cases include children with leukemia, who are predisposed to having complications should they contract the virus.

    Also, there are certain risks involved if a pregnant woman were to contract the virus during a pregnancy:

    Maternal chickenpox during pregnancy may produce latency of the VZV virus in the dorsal root ganglia of the fetus. These children may remain asymptomatic, or they may develop herpes zoster at a young age without previous history of primary chickenpox infection. Primary maternal chickenpox infection during the first 20 weeks of gestation may also rarely produce the congenital varicella syndrome, which is characterized by limb hypoplasia, muscular atrophy, skin scarring, cortical atrophy, microcephaly, cataract formation, and rudimentary digits.

    Again, I see the benefits of having gotten chicken pox out of the way as a child!

    In my research, it became quite evident that those whose immune systems are compromised or suppressed {which can include being suppressed by anti-rejection drugs due to some type of transplant} are the ones who are in danger of complications. These complications include varicella pneumonia, myocarditis, hepatitis, and glomerulonephritis. Also, nervous system reactions such as Reye syndrome, Guillain-Barré syndrome, acute cerebellar ataxia, and encephalitis.

    That was interesting to me, since Guillain-Barré syndrome is often associated with vaccine injury. Perhaps it is simply that these viruses do damage to some patients?

    Lastly, there are some instances in which the chicken pox becomes malignant {cancerous}. The death rate in these cases is around 70%.

    So, to summarize my research: in normal children, chicken pox is fairly benign. However, if you have reached puberty and/or have some sort of immune system dysfunction, be prepared for a dangerous ride.

    Is chicken pox treatable?

    I was surprised to learn that there are a number of medicines available to assist those for whom the disease is dangerous:

    1. Varicella-zoster immune globulin offers what is called “passive immunization” and is used on immunocompromised or immunosuppressed populations. “When given within 96 h of exposure, can modify the course of disease but does not prevent it. Maximal effectiveness is seen with administration as soon as possible after exposure.”
    2. Antiviral agents including Acyclovir, which inhibits viral activity and may prevent recurrent outbreaks in patients whose immune systems are defective, as well as Famciclovir, which is thought to inhibit viral replication. There is also Valacyclovir, which is similar to Acyclovir, more expensive, but apparently “has a more convenient dosing regimen than acyclovir.” These drugs, by the way, have not been confirmed as safe for pregnant women and their unborn children.

    What are the possible side-effects of the vaccine?

    If you have children, or know someone who does, then you are probably familiar with the existence of the varicella vaccine, often called “the chicken pox shot” by parents. Well, just like drugs, vaccines have side effects and risks associated. I can tell you from personal experience that the vaccine is not wholly effective. We have been exposed to a few chicken pox outbreaks over the years, and every single time, the outbreak began with a vaccinated child.

    I chose to list the risks associated with the Varivax vaccine. This is the live, attenuated virus used by our own pediatrician. There are a couple other vaccines, including the Proquad, which combines measles, mumps, rubella, and chicken pox all in one. I would never, ever, ever give my child Proquad.



    In children 1-12 years of age, there were few side effects:

    In addition, the most frequently {³1%} reported adverse experiences, without regard to causality, are listed in decreasing order of frequency: upper respiratory illness, cough, irritability/nervousness, fatigue, disturbed sleep, diarrhea, loss of appetite, vomiting, otitis, diaper rash/contact rash, headache, teething, malaise, abdominal pain, other rash, nausea, eye complaints, chills, lymphadenopathy, myalgia, lower respiratory illness, allergic reactions {including allergic rash, hives}, stiff neck, heat rash/prickly heat, arthralgia, eczema/dry skin/dermatitis, constipation, itching.

    Pneumonitis has been reported rarely {<1%} in children vaccinated with VARIVAX; a causal relationship has not been established.

    Febrile seizures have occurred rarely {<0.1%} in children vaccinated with VARIVAX; a causal relationship has not been established.

    In adolescents and adults aged 13 and up, side effects were:

    In addition, the most frequently {³1%} reported adverse experiences, without regard to causality, are listed in decreasing order of frequency: upper respiratory illness, headache, fatigue, cough, myalgia, disturbed sleep, nausea, malaise, diarrhea, stiff neck, irritability/nervousness, lymphadenopathy, chills, eye complaints, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, arthralgia, otitis, itching, vomiting, other rashes, constipation, lower respiratory illness, allergic reactions {including allergic rash, hives}, contact rash, cold/canker sore. As with any vaccine, there is the possibility that broad use of the vaccine could reveal adverse reactions not observed in clinical trials.

    Since the vaccine has been marketed, these additional complaints have been made:

    Body as a Whole

    Anaphylaxis in individuals with or without an allergic history.

    Hemic and Lymphatic System



    Encephalitis; cerebrovascular accident; transverse myelitis; Guillain-Barré syndrome; Bell’s palsy; ataxia; non-febrile seizures; dizziness; paresthesia.


    Pharyngitis; Pneumonia/Pneumonitis.


    Stevens-Johnson syndrome; erythema multiforme; Henoch-Schönlein purpura; secondary bacterial infections of skin and soft tissue, including impetigo and cellulitis; herpes zoster.

    Since very few normal, healthy children are actually threatened by chicken pox, I found it interesting that

    [t]he safety and efficacy of VARIVAX have not been established in children and young adults who are known to be infected with human immunodeficiency viruses with and without evidence of immunosuppression.

    Is the trade-off worth it?

    Varicella is interesting because I’m not sure we have to see this as a trade-off. Many of the DAN! {Defeat Autism Now!} doctors are suggesting that, rather than automatically giving a child the shot, there should first be a blood test, called a varicella titer. If the child is already immune, there is no reason to vaccinate.

    Because the vaccine was only introduced in 1999, there is no evidence of long-term efficacy. In fact, Yale researchers found that the effectiveness decreases significantly after the first year. If the vaccine wears off in the future, we are risking a number of adults getting sick at a time in life when the disease is much more threatening. However, once a child has had actual chicken pox, the IGG response is lifelong and efficacious {unless there is a compromised immune systems overall}.

    The vaccine, according to Dr. Sears, “should not be given to persons allergic to any component of the vaccine, such as neomycin and gelatin. The vaccine does not contain preservatives or egg protein, so that egg allergy is not a contraindication to getting the VV. [It should not be given to] persons with immuno-deficiencies, such as HIV or leukemia, persons taking large doses of cortisone, or persons on any medications that lower the immune system.”

    We do not get the chicken pox shot any longer. Our reason for this is that there is no ethical version of the vaccine available at this time.

    Parting thoughts

    In my research, I found that much of the information out there encouraged vaccinating children because chicken pox was “annoying.” When children get sick, their parents, who apparently have better things to do with their time than be hassled by sick children, are “stranded at home” {according to one site}. My personal belief is that the varicella vaccine exists for our convenience more than anything else. It is a symptom of a culture where mothers do not want to be bothered by their children.

    This is, my friends, looking at the vaccine as and idea rather than merely trying to decide whether or not to get it.

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  • Reply Brandy March 10, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    Our personal goal is to make sure our children are exposed to chicken pox before age eight. Everyone I talk to says what you say, Anonymous, which is that the closer to adolescence, the worse the disease. We don’t know if our oldest is immune or not. He was vaccinated (we didn’t understand the ethical issues at the time), which isn’t always effective. We will definitely do the blood test with him to make sure.

  • Reply Anonymous March 10, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    Chicken Pox in older children does cause nasty poc like scars – when my sisters and I had it, my oldest sister who was about 11 at the time got it the worst and had scars for the rest of her life on her face. I can see using the vaccine to prevent that, having seen it.

  • Reply Brandy March 7, 2008 at 6:53 pm

    Kimbrah, I had no idea you have had shingles! And while pregnant, no less. That sounds awful to me. I can’t even imagine. Thank you for the article. That is definitely a take on the issue I didn’t come across in my own research and I look forward to reading it.

    Rebecca, So you are saying your chicken pox influence extended as far and wide as you could possibly manage? Good for you!

    What are you doing on the internet, anyhow? Shouldn’t you be moving? 😉

  • Reply rebecca March 7, 2008 at 2:48 am

    I also wanted to add a little anecdotal evidence for you re: age and chickenpox… I had it when I was 6 and it was very mild. I remember staying home and having ice cream the day my grandma babysat for me. My brother was nearly 9 at the time and his case was markedly worse. He had empitigo (sp) and was badly scarred. So, yes, it seems early exposure was better.

    I also managed to infect several other children because they were exposed before my parents were aware I was sick and then some other children whose mother asked to have me over for the afternoon so her kids could catch it.

  • Reply Kimbrah March 7, 2008 at 1:59 am

    Okay I found it, here’s the link to that article-

  • Reply Kimbrah March 7, 2008 at 1:55 am


    I had chickenpox as a child and have also had shingles as an adult (when I was pregnant with Bobby, about 3 weeks before he was born). It is extremely painful! Not the funnest experience ever, let me tell you!

    In my internet perusals, I read that being exposed to children who have chickenpox actually strengthens adult immunity against shingles (those adults who have had “wild” chicken pox). I will try to find the article and link to it, but I thought that info was fascinating. Perhaps by “eliminating” childhood pox, we are condemning the older generation to more shingles. Just a thought.


  • Reply Brandy March 7, 2008 at 12:34 am


    I liked your point when you said doctors want to eliminate disease, which consequently has created new diseases. There are a number of vaccines that I feel our children are being used as guinea pigs for. We really don’t know the long-term outcomes of using those vaccines.

    I definitely like Dr. Bock’s idea of the blood test. We will be doing this with all of our children. I think our oldest was fully vaccinated for chicken pox and then A. had one of the shots? I don’t remember. But since the vaccine isn’t always effective (some say only 70% of the time), we think it’s safest to have all of them tested. And then maybe we will do the chicken pox party thing once Number Four is a year old.

  • Reply Dominic and Kimberly March 6, 2008 at 11:54 pm

    Dr. Bock has an alternative vacination schedule in his book and he says that parents should have their child tested for immunity to chicken pox before giving them the vaccine. It’s as simple as a blood test. Interesting that this is not mandatory before giving the vaccination.
    My opinnion on why there are so many vaccinations now-doctors want to eliminate disease, which consequently has created new diseases. People want no suffering, and they want to be God.

  • Reply Brandy March 6, 2008 at 10:33 pm

    Chicken pox and shingles are connected, yes, though it can get confusing because technically chicken pox is caused by the varicella zoster virus while shingles is caused by the herpes zoster virus. (And yes! There is now a herpes zoster vaccine for adults.) The reigning theory, from my understanding, is that the varicella virus hibernates somewhere in the body (in the basal ganglia, acutally) and then resurfaces later on in adulthood–typically after the age of 50.

    The interesting thing about shingles is that, technically, the anitbodies developed by fighting off chicken pox in the first place should defeat any instance of the virus rearing its ugly head again, even later in life. So shingles tends to point to a dysfunction or suppression of immunity in the body.

    Supposedly, catching wild chicken pox results in higher and better antibodies than simply getting the vaccine. However, that doesn’t match up with some data, which says that a person is more likely to get shingles if they were exposed to wild chicken pox than if they were vaccinated. Of course, the vaccine isn’t old enough for all of this to play out.

    The bigger risk from the vaccine might be chicken pox later in life. When I did more reading, I kept coming across doctors who feared that the vaccine wears off and will push what should be elementary-school outbreaks into the 20-30 age bracket, where the virus is dangerous and possibly deadly.

    This whole thing is interesting because all the researchers and critics have their theories, but, due to the timeline of development, there really isn’t any hard data to say who will be right!

    Here is an interesting article for anyone interested in the considerations that go into deciding to have a chicken pox party, which is where parents purposely expose their children to varicella zoster in hopes that they catch wild chicken pox.

  • Reply rebecca March 6, 2008 at 8:03 pm

    I was doing a little reading of my own (can’t remember where) and read that a benefit of this vaccination is that you can only get Shingles if you have had Chicken Pox. Shingles sounds more than just annoying (my grandfather has had it several times and says it is VERY painful). However, I have also heard recently that there is a new vaccination specifically for Shingles that is recommended for older adults.

    Of course, if this vaccine wears off over time, perhaps it doesn’t prevent shingles in the long run, either.

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