The Chickenpox Vaccine
I’m not a doctor, just a parent who’s been chatting to other parents. This post is in no way medical advice.
My son recently had Roseola (also known as Sixth Disease), a relatively mild rash-based virus that most children under two will get. At the time we had no idea what it was, and it was diagnosed (over the phone) as chickenpox. We called NHS Direct and had a chat about his symptoms, ruling out more serious conditions and receiving the recommendation to keep him home and as comfortable as possible and to assume chickenpox or similar. Because chickenpox and other mild viral rashes are so contagious, they don’t recommend you head to the doctors for a diagnosis unless there’s something concerning as you could potentially be passing it on to people with compromised immune systems or who are at risk. As I am still working through postnatal anxiety and trauma, I get quite nervous when William is ill – far more than I think is normal so even though he was in no danger, just discomfort, I found the week very difficult. I think I was more upset than he was! Now we realize he hasn’t had chickenpox, we had to sit down and discuss whether we’d get the chickenpox vaccine.
We had a chat with our health visitor about this (once he was recovered!) and talked about why the NHS don’t currently provide the vaccine as standard, although it is offered as standard in other parts of the world such as the USA.
Why doesn’t the NHS offer the chickenpox vaccine?
The NHS says “In adults, chickenpox tends to be more severe and the risk of complications increases with age. If a childhood chickenpox vaccination programme was introduced, people would not catch chickenpox as children because the infection would no longer circulate in areas where the majority of children had been vaccinated. This would leave unvaccinated children susceptible to contracting chickenpox as adults, when they are more likely to get a more serious infection, or in pregnancy, where there is a risk of the infection harming the baby.”
So the NHS says that by letting our children catch the disease, we protect people in the future through a natural herd immunity.
It also raises a case for increased episodes of shingles, suggesting that “We could also see a significant increase in cases of shingles in adults. Being exposed to chickenpox as an adult – for example, through contact with infected children – boosts your immunity to shingles. If you vaccinate children against chickenpox, you lose this natural boosting, so immunity in adults will drop and more shingles cases will occur.”
This is however just a theory, with no current data to back it up.
Isn’t this about money?
The NHS does work to a limited budget. I have read some arguments that the NHS doesn’t have room in the budget for unnecessary vaccines, but it’s worth noting that the World Health Organization now lists the varicella vaccine as an essential medicine. The amount of money that the NHS spends on GP appointments, telephone calls, medication, and hospital visits for people with chickenpox is not documented – but is going to be quite high. The chickenpox vaccine can be given in a safe cocktail with the MMR vaccine known as MMRV so wouldn’t cost any additional vaccination appointments as it can be given within the existing schedule. Furthermore, when a child of school age gets chickenpox, they’re told they must stay home for 7 days. This means someone has to stay home with them for 7 days, so the cost to the UK in lost work hours from parents having to take time off work must be considerable.
However, we all know how bureaucracy works (very slowly!) and it’s possible that approving the budget and re-structuring the vaccination problem is affecting the NHS and their decision on this vaccine.
What is the World Health Organization’s position on the chickenpox vaccine?
The World Health Organization produces papers on disease and vaccines with their official position. The Varicella and herpes zoster (chickenpox) vaccine position paper was written on June 2014, so is fairly recently updated, replacing their 1998 paper. The WHO directly addresses the NHS concern with the following statement. “Concerns have been raised that introduction of widespread childhood varicella vaccination would decrease exposure to VZV in the population, resulting in an older age distribution of the remaining cases. In the USA, as varicella decreased disproportionately in young children (the target age group for vaccination), an ageshift was observed following the widespread introduction of varicella vaccination with a 1-dose schedule. However, varicella incidence in older children and adults remained well below the rates reported in the pre-vaccination era.” It goes into much further information, and this is worth a read on page 281 of the report (which starts on page 265).
So the WHO stance appears to be that yes, the age group for chickenpox does shift upwards, but still remains below the rates reported pre-vaccination and is backed up by studies and data.
So what about that shingles thing? The verdict’s out on that one. It’s a working theory, but there simply isn’t enough data. As you can imagine, getting decades worth of data on shingles can be quite difficult, and they need to gather the data from populations who are actively vaccinating to compare against those that aren’t. So I’m afraid there’s no easy answer to this one!
We all have our opinion and reasons for choosing certain vaccinations. I know this can be a touchy subject, especially over the pond, but here in the UK I’ve never experienced much heated debate around vaccinations and so reached out to other parents to ask for their opinion on the chickenpox vaccine. I found that people do still have strong opinions on the subject but on the whole seem very respectful of the choices other people make for their own children.
Would you vaccinate for chickenpox – see what other parents said!
If you’re thinking about whether or not to choose to vaccinate your children privately (two doses required, current cost approximately £65 per dose from most pharmacy shops) here are some of the comments I received:
I absolutely would consider it. Freddie had chicken pox when he was 6 and they became infected and my god he was so ill. He was on 2 different antibiotics and had such a high temperature it was awful to see. I see people have “chicken pox parties” so their kids can get it early but there is not enough out there about how horrible it actually can be – Clare.
No I wouldn’t and my daughter had chicken pox really bad to the point that the GP sent us straight to the hospital. While it’s great that vaccines are available in most cases chickenpox is harmless and over and done with in a week. I think if we as keep vaccinating against everything our children in the long run will become ill with a weak immune system. – Jade
Having just had it as adult, with my newborn because my toddler brought it home, I think the correct advice is seriously lacking for people with weakened immune system. The vaccine is definitely an option way before chickenpox exposure but there are also other vital steps that can be taken after exposure and even immediately after the first spots appear! In hindsight, I should have vaccinated my toddler after finding out that I didn’t have immunity while pregnant. A few days after giving birth, my toddler had chickenpox. Rang 111 and was given advice that the hospital later confirmed to have been incorrect. Everyone just kept assuming I’d pass on immunity to my baby via breastmilk even after I’d pointed that I’ve never had chickenpox myself! 2 weeks later, the baby had it too. We had to go to hospital but he received excellent care. While in hospital, I also had it. It turns out Doctors in the children’s ward aren’t for adults so I had to fight for any sort of care and eventually got sent to A&E! – Victoria
I’m not against vaccinations in any way, but I wouldn’t get this one unless I was medically advised Neither myself, partner or daughter had it so severely either and none of us even remember having it. Vaccinations are important but so is building up natural immunity through exposure to viruses and illnesses that, for a lot of people, are easy to recover from. – Kayleigh
I wouldn’t be comfortable with it. Sometimes I think we overuse medicine – especially when you consider the problems we are facing with antibiotics at the moment. Unless a doctor turned to me and said your kids really need to have it done, I would avoid it. – Pete
No I wouldn’t give it to my children. It doesn’t last for life and chicken pox as an adult is far worse. – Emma
I wish I’d had my first son vaccinated. He was so poorly and is left with scars. Saying that my youngest is 2 and I still haven’t got round to it but it is my intention to do it. – Erica
I never knew this existed!! It’s amazing at first thought, but I wouldn’t want my child to have chicken pox as an adult as it’s by far worse. – Kaiden
If there was one on the NHS as part of a jab programme and it had been fully tested, then yes. I’m all for here immunisation programmes where needed. But as things stand at the moment, no. My son has supposedly had chicken pox twice but so mildly (5 spots each time and to me they weren’t classic pox spots but the doctor said that was all they could have been) so I’m just hoping that’s it and he’s now immune. But for most people chicken pox isn’t a killer so I’m not going to put more jabs in if they’re not necessary. – Emma
I’m going to go against the grain and say yes but only because I have a type of autoimmune disease that requires immuno suppressents to manage. This means my immune system is essential shut off and I get ill ALL THE TIME things like the common cold or a sore throat are fine but something like chicken pox can be serious despite already having it as a child. When my son got them it was a nightmare I had to stay with relatives and have extensive tests to see if I’d contracted it. Of course I could be around someone at anytime who is contagious but it’s most likely to be my own children so having the option to vaccinate them would be helpful. Of course I would only consider it after extensive research I wouldn’t put them at risk for the sake of it! – Sophie
I would consider it, because I’ve seen how ill it can make children. As a toddler, my brother caught a particularly bad strain. This led to him losing temporarily losing the use of his legs and suffering from hallucinations, amongst other symptoms. He was hospitalised and they weren’t sure what was wrong with him, but we think it may have been encephalitis, having read about it since. I know complications are rare, but I’d worry about going through that with my daughter. – Laura
Before mine had chicken pox I would have said no, but seeing them suffer the way they did, I would say yes in a heartbeat. My youngest son was so poorly, he had them in his mouth, his eyes, and he ended up ok countless antibiotics as they got infected. It was just hideous and if I could have protected him from that I would. – Laura
I’d definitely say no. It’s not normally dangerous to get chickenpox as a child, so unless my child had an autoimmune condition, I wouldn’t vaccinate. My four have had it and although they were unwell for a few days, they’re now immune. The vaccination has to be done every 20 years I think. – Mel
After my eldest had it I would have said no. We coped. It was a pain being stuck inside, but he was fine. But then my youngest got it, and it was awful. I have never seen so many spots. He was so distressed and uncomfortable. It was horrible seeing him go through it. A year on he has quite a few scars. So now I would vaccinate. – Claire
After two children hospitalised with it, one 5 month old who couldn’t control his heart rate and spent a week on an iv (he has scars all over his face from it now) and a 4 year old with suspected pneumonia from the spots in his airways and lungs, I am considering vaccinating my one year old. For most children it is just quick and over with but it can also be really serious. – Becky
Yes! My eldest was really ill with it for over a week, he had them everywhere, in his mouth, in his ears which got infected, on his palms and soles even. My friends little girl ended up in icu with it and had to relearn to walk after. Yes it can be mild but it can also be serious. We don’t know how each child is going to react and it seems silly to put them through something that can be prevented! – Eilidh
Yes, in a heartbeat. Why cause unnecessary pain and discomfort in children if it can be avoided? There’s a reason the vaccination is given in Germany as standard and I think it’s the right decision. – Vicki
Yes, we’re planning to have it done as soon as the baby is old enough. There are a few reasons for us; I want to avoid unnecessary suffering for my children by putting them through an illness that I could prevent and also chickenpox could potentially cause us big childcare issues as it means a substantial time of nursery, and therefore work, especially if the children get it at different times. It’s standard in so many other countries these days! – Hayley
I always said I would pay to have it done if my daughter hadn’t had chicken pox by the time she was a teenager. My friend had chicken pox as a young adult and it was really unpleasant. As it was, my only child had chicken pox when she was two so it hasn’t become an issue for us. – Simone
We are booked in for this weekend. Our youngest has multiple health issues and it would undoubtedly make her very poorly. She also has an ‘open’ site as she has a feeding tube in her stomach so it worries me that it would really affect her in that area. Vaccinating my eldest too to try & prevent exposure. Many other countries have it in their vaccination schedule already. – Becky
Both my children had it quite badly as babies and got infected spots. My son has numerous long term scars because of it. I also have a friend whose son was hospitalised with it and another whose daughter had seizures as a result of it. The vaccination is standard in America and after my experiences, yes if I had another child I would vaccinate them. – Emma
Both my kids have had the vaccine as we have been living in the states until recently and it’s standard there. Didn’t know could increase risk as an adult though… Honestly I don’t think anyone but a medical professional could confirm that. You can get shingles even if you had chicken pox as a child – my hubby had it. That being said if the vaccine had not been standard I probably wouldn’t have asked for it. I usually go with whatever current medical advice is. – Rosie.
I’ve actually done it and my second child has been vaccinated against chicken pox. Why? Because her big sister had it so badly her spots got severely infected. I was treating her for months afterwards with antibiotics and steroid creams. Seeing an 18mth old suffer like that was just awful plus she has scarring (which isn’t my main issue but adds to it). As soon as my youngest turned 1 I had her immunised. And it turns out thank god I did because she is under GOSH because she has an underdeveloped immune system and the doctors have told me if she does contract chicken pox she would be high risk for complications such as pneumonia. It is all very well people being against vaccinations but for children like my daughter who have a weak immune system these ‘routine’ childhood illness could actually kill them. I’ve also had her vaccinated for meningitis and she’s booked in for BCG. – Amy
Odd one for me. My son has had the first half of the vaccine however won’t be getting the second. Within days of the injection he developed a prominent tic which has remained. After lots of research and discussion with our GP it appears the vaccine MIGHT trigger issues in some children. – Catherine
A lot of well reasoned responses on both sides of the fence and some excellent points raised. I was a little bit scared about posting asking for opinion from parents on Facebook, but I think it’s really good to have this sort of discussion and keep thinking about it and evaluating our viewpoints. One thing that shines through is everyone is trying to make the best decision with the information they have and it’s not easy! Well that sums up parenting really.
I created a poll and asked other British parents anonymously to answer a simple yes or no to whether they have, or would like to give their children the chickenpox vaccine. The results at the time of writing this were 49 votes for yes, 21 votes for no. That’s a 70% yes, which is very interesting – although this is obviously a very small selection of people.
For myself, we’ve decided that we will give him the vaccination. Even though chickenpox is not usually life threatening, it can lead to complications which are very serious and can even be fatal. Having done some pretty serious research, I can understand the point of view of both sides. There are pros and cons in both direction, with no guarantees. I think that in the future we’re going to see the NHS eventually following suit and adding the chickenpox vaccine to the roster, but not in the next ten years, which will allow for more and more data to come in.
What worries me is that I wasn’t given any of this information until I specifically asked and searched for it, and I wonder how many parents are out there who would prefer to vaccinate their child but are unaware this is an option. If the NHS continues not to offer the chickenpox vaccine, I think that parents like myself should be better informed that it is an option so that we can make our own decision. If this article encourages even one parent to read the NHS and WHO pages and make their own mind up – whichever way you decide – then I’ll be very happy to have helped!
I’d like to give a massive big thank you to all the parents who gave me comments or voted on my poll.
Please share your thoughts in the comments, but note that the comments are moderated and I won’t approve any that are insulting, harrassing or conspiracy theories regarding vaccination in general. Although this is a UK blog, I do have an international audience, and I hope everyone can keep it respectful.