Why Giving Children the Chicken Pox Jab Could Give YOU Shingles

Daily Mail (London), March 3, 2009 | Go to article overview

Why Giving Children the Chicken Pox Jab Could Give YOU Shingles


Byline: JEROME BURNE

CHILDREN might soon be vaccinated against chicken pox, according to recent reports. But some experts question the need for a vaccine against an infection that's so mild -- especially when it could put thousands of elderly people at greater risk of shingles.

Chicken pox causes up to 50 deaths a year, 40 of them children, and it seems the Government's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is considering adding a vaccine against it to the MMR jab.

But there is widespread concern about this. First because a similar MMR super jab now used in America has been found to double the risk of fits in some children. Also the jab has raised the rate of shingles among the old -- according to one U.S. study, cases have risen by 90 per cent. Here even the Government health watchdog, the Health Protection Agency, has predicted that a vaccine could cause a 20 per cent rise in shingles cases.

But how could a vaccine for children make old people ill? Chicken pox and shingles are caused by the varicella virus -- after a childhood attack of chicken pox, the virus lies dormant in the nerves until triggered in later life when it flares up as shingles.

'Every time adults come into contact with children who've just caught chicken pox, they get the natural equivalent of a booster shot of the virus which strengthens their resistance,' explains Dr Phillip Welsby, an infectious diseases expert who has just retired from Western General Hospital, Edinburgh.

In the past, when a child got chicken pox their mother would invite neighbours' children to a 'chicken pox party' so they, too, could become infected and get it over with.

'What the parents usually didn't realise was they were benefiting as well,' says Welsby. 'GPs, for instance, are less likely to develop shingles, because they are regularly exposed to children with chicken pox.' However, a nationwide campaign to vaccinate children against the disease would mean adults would be exposed to fewer children with chicken pox, so they miss out on this natural booster 'jab'.

While nearly all cases of chicken pox are pretty mild -- a slight fever for a few days and small itchy blisters -- shingles is often a nasty condition in the elderly. By the age of 85, 65 per cent of us will have suffered this often extremely painful disease.

It begins as a burning sensation along the nerves down which the virus is moving, followed by the rash and fever, usually lasting three to five days. But in some cases -- as many as 20 per cent of those over 50 -- severe pain will be there six months later.

AROUND 40 per cent of sufferers will have long-lasting pain due to permanent nerve damage, according to the Shingles Support Society.

If the virus reaches your eyes, it can cause blindness. If you have to go to hospital for chicken pox, your average stay will be three days, but for shingles it is 11 days and you are six times more likely to die.

Although the inflammation doesn't kill you, it can lead to fatal conditions such as pneumonia, inflammation of the brain or severe bacterial infections in the eruptions in the skin leading to toxic shock. Some experts put the death rate from shingles at five times that from chicken pox.

Just how many cases of shingles a vaccination programme would cause is disputed. Welsby says there could be a 50 per cent increase in cases for 30 to 50 years. 'Anyone aged between ten and 44 when it started would be at greater risk,' he says, 'because they'd be getting fewer and fewer boosts from coming into contact with infected children.

'Eventually, however, there would be fewer cases as almost no one will have an active virus in their body to trigger shingles when they are older.' One American researcher claims there are going to be an additional 14. …

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