Chickenpox caused six deaths among children in just over a year and should be added to the list of diseases they are immunised against, doctors recommend today.
The illness, caused by a virus which produces a nasty rash, is widely seen as an irritating but inevitable infection to be endured during childhood. But this ignores the fact that in some children it can have dangerous or even fatal effects.
Paediatricians who monitored all children admitted to hospital with severe complications of chickenpox counted 112 cases over 13 months between 2002 and 2003. Complications included septic shock, pneumonia and encephalitis (swelling of the brain), as well as unco-ordinated movement (ataxia), toxic shock syndrome and "flesh-eating" bacterial infection (necrotising fasciitis). The average age of the children was three.
Four of the six children who died had pre-existing medical conditions, but these were not groups targeted for immunisation. A fifth died in the womb.
Vaccination programmes for children against chickenpox have already been introduced in other countries including the US, Canada, Australia and Finland. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which advises the Government, is understood to be considering recommending that the UK follows suit. Professor Adam Finn and colleagues, from the department of clinical science at the University of Bristol, led the study, which was published in Archives of Disease in Childhood. They say the simplest strategy would be to add chickenpox to the MMR vaccination, converting it from a triple jab (against measles, mumps and rubella) to a quadruple one (with the addition of varicella (chickenpox).
But they say fears about MMR, though unfounded, might be increased by adding an extra vaccine and could make the strategy difficult to implement.
Instead, they recommend offering the vaccine to all teenagers who have not been infected. "This could prevent cases of severe disease in adults and pregnant women and raise public awareness of the potential and desirability of primary prevention."