The chickenpox vaccine should be introduced on the NHS for children, scientists advising the Government have recommended.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) report said the jab should be given to youngsters in two doses when they are aged 12 months and 18 months, to reduce the number of severe cases.
The Government will now consider the recommendations, which also suggest a temporary catch-up programme for older children (ages haven’t been specified), and comes after evidence of the jab’s effectiveness in other countries.
“The vaccine has been around for quite some time. In countries like the US and Australia it’s part of their standard children’s vaccination program,” says Dr Radhika Vohra, GP at Gatwick Park Hospital, part of Spire Healthcare.
Some children in the UK are given the jab, she explains: “If they have severe eczema, for example, because that can cause a complication of chickenpox, or children who are very immuno-vulnerable… because chickenpox will be a much more severe illness for them.”
Here, Dr Vohra discusses the key facts parents need to know about chickenpox and the vaccine…
What is chickenpox?
“Chickenpox is a really common viral illness that usually affects children, but you can get it at any age,” says Dr Vohra.
The highly contagious virus is often seen in children aged three to five because that’s when they start to mix in groups at nursery or school.
“The main symptom you see is an itchy, spotty rash. It can be anywhere in the body but usually starts on the neck and the face and the torso first,” Dr Vohra explains.
“The rash turns into blisters and then they form a scab, and then that’s when it’s less infectious. It usually takes one to two weeks to develop and clears up in around the same time.”
As well as the telltale spots, chickenpox can cause flu-like symptoms, like tiredness or a temperature, but these are usually minimal for children, unless they have an underlying condition.
“Children who have eczema can get a condition where the virus infects the skin more severely and that can be quite debilitating,” says Dr Vohra.
“If a child has a weaker immune system due to a condition or cancer care, they can get much more severely ill.”
The same is true for immuno-suppressed adults: “They can get high temperatures, enlarged glands, lethargy, and then as the rash progresses over the course of maybe 10 to 14 days they start to feel better.”
How is it spread?
Chickenpox is an airborne virus, meaning it’s spread by coughing or breathing in shared spaces.
“That’s why nurseries and primary schools can see a real quick spread,” Dr Vohra says.
“It’s being shed all the time you have the rash, particularly when it’s blisters, so it’s spread very quickly in that way.”
Can you get chickenpox twice?
While it’s unusual to have chickenpox more than once, it’s not impossible.
“We are seeing people have a large gap, then sometimes they do get it again,” Dr Vohra says, and you can get a related condition caused by the same virus.
“Shingles is like a reactivation of the chickenpox virus within one part of your nervous system. It usually presents on one patch of the skin.”
Shingles can irritate the nerves, meaning the rash can be very painful, and older people are more vulnerable to the condition.
Dr Vohra says: “For them, we do have a shingles vaccination programme already running because it can make them quite ill, and the pain can stay even after the rash settles.”
Why is a vaccine being recommended now?
Previously, it was thought that introducing chickenpox jabs for children would mean more unvaccinated people would catch the virus as adults, when it could be more serious, but now experts believe that the vaccine will reduce cases overall.
In addition, a drop in chickenpox cases during the pandemic, when children weren’t mixing as much, has led to a decline in herd immunity.
“Those children growing up are now more vulnerable to chickenpox,” says Dr Vohra, which is why the catch-up programme is being suggested.
“The other reason is we have data to suggest that there’s enough reason to vaccinate, because it’s on the whole a harmless vaccine, but for some children or individuals, the complications of chickenpox can be quite severe.”
After two doses, most children are protected for life. While the vaccine doesn’t guarantee lifetime cover, it does greatly reduce the risk of having chickenpox or having a severe case.
It’s not just a short-lived mild illness for many, which mitigates not only the health risks but also the knock-on effects.
“It has huge consequences on attendance to nursery or school, economic costs, time off work, isolation and even distancing from family members or contacts,” says Dr Vohra.
“Also pregnant women are vulnerable. So if we look at the global impact, it’s much wider than just that couple of weeks’ illness.”