Chickenpox - Prevention

A vaccine for chickenpox called Varivax was approved for use in the United States in 1995. The vaccine consists of live, but weakened, viruses and is effective in preventing chickenpox in 70 to 90 percent of all cases. In the remaining 10 to 30 percent of cases, the severity of a chickenpox infection is lessened by the vaccine. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that all children (with a few exceptions) be given the vaccine between the ages of twelve and eighteen months. It can be combined with their measles-mumps-rubella vaccination. The vaccine is also recommended for older people who may be at risk for the disease. Health care workers and women of childbearing age are examples of such groups.

Children under the age of twelve receive one dose of the vaccine. Those over the age of twelve receive a second dose four to eight weeks after the first dose. The vaccine is useful when given soon after someone has been exposed to chickenpox. It can also prevent the disease if given during the incubation period.

The Varivax vaccine is still not widely used. Some doctors believe that a second dose later in life may be necessary to protect individuals and worry that individuals may not remember to get the second dose once they grow up. Other doctors are concerned that the live virus in the vaccine might cause shingles later in life. Because of such fears, only 20 percent of all two-yearolds had been vaccinated for chickenpox as of 1997. Health professionals are still debating the best way to use Varivax.

A substance known as varicella-zoster immune globulin (VZIG) is also available for the treatment of children with weakened immune systems and others at risk for complications from chickenpox. To be effective, the drug must be given within ninety-six hours after a person has been exposed to the virus. In such cases, it can reduce the severity of chickenpox symptoms.

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