Chickenpox tales
By Toni Di Stefano

The time around my nephew’s birthday luncheon last October has become a memorable one for our family. Within days of this lunch, my two daughters were recognised as having chickenpox. My nephew was the next to come down with chickenpox, followed by his two daughters. This was then followed by an outbreak at one of his daughter’s schools, where an estimated 50 people were infected.

"I wish I had known then that spring and summer are chickenpox seasons as all this may have been avoided if the girls had been previously vaccinated."

I kick myself now as I remember that I had planned to vaccinate my daughters and had the prescription ready to fill, however I kept postponing it for “a more convenient time”.

The chickenpox virus first infected my youngest daughter, Daniela who was 10 years of age. She had a temperature and some flu-like symptoms. However, it was not until a rash developed that we realised she had chickenpox. Gabriella, who was 13 years of age, was next to be infected. Two miserable children with what seemed like hundreds of itchy spots which were impossible not to scratch, were not a pretty sight. I bought lotions to sooth their itching, however nothing deterred them from the fact that the rash was incredibly uncomfortable. Although they were not seriously ill like some children can get with chickenpox, the infection has left some permanent scars on them both. Having chickenpox also interfered with the girls' school sports day and dance concert that they had worked towards all year.

But it didn't end there. My nephews, Michael aged 20 and Paul aged 31 years, both came down with chickenpox. Paul's two young daughters then had the characteristic rash. Paul's chickenpox illness was much worse than his daughters'. I had heard that chickenpox can be much worse in adults. His wife Nola described the two weeks as "the worst time of her life", with three sick patients who were house bound and bed ridden the entire time. Paul was off work for one week and took 4 weeks to fully recover.

After this episode the rest of the family, both adults and children, who had not had chickenpox, were vaccinated with the chickenpox vaccine. Like me, both Paul and Nola are glad that the chickenpox experience is now over. I only wish I had acted to prevent the infection by vaccinating my children once I had picked up the prescription.

Dr Rod Pearce, of the Australian Medical Association and immunisation spokesperson answers some frequently asked questions on chickenpox vaccination.

Q: Who should be vaccinated?

A: It is recommended for any person who has not had chickenpox and is over 12 months of age.

Q: At what age can my children by vaccinated?

A: In Australia it is recommended for children from 12 months of age. However your doctor may prefer to give it to your infant at 18 months of age to coincide with other vaccinations your baby may receive.

Q: Is it safe?

A: The vaccine has been used internationally for more than 10 years with few side affects.

Q: How long does the chickenpox vaccine last – will I need to remember to take my child for a booster shot?

A: Children aged 12 months to 12 years only need one dose. Anybody aged over 12 years who has not had chickenpox will require two doses of the vaccine. Experience from the United States and Japan suggest immunity lasts for at least 20 years.

Q: How serious is chickenpox?

A: Chickenpox can be serious and potentially fatal. Common complications range from secondary bacterial infections, permanent scarring of the skin to pneumonia (infection of the lung) or encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).

Q: Are there any side effects of the vaccine?

A: The most common side affects of the chickenpox vaccine are a sore arm and a raised temperature. The side effects of chickenpox vaccine are similar to those seen with most recommended childhood vaccines. For more information you should speak to your doctor.

Q: What should I do if I have never had chickenpox or I cannot remember if I have had chickenpox?

A: A simple blood test from your doctor will determine whether you have had chickenpox. Your doctor will advise you regarding immunisation.

Q: What should I do if I am planning on becoming pregnant?

A: It is recommended you visit your doctor prior to becoming pregnant. Your doctor may suggest a blood test to check for chickenpox and other viruses that could harm you and your unborn baby throughout pregnancy such as rubella (german measles). If your doctor administers the chickenpox vaccine to you, it is recommended that you avoid becoming pregnant for 3 months after the date of vaccination. If you are already pregnant, vaccination is not recommended.

Issued on behalf of GlaxoSmithKline Australia