Chickenpox vaccine to become available this week

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The long-awaited chickenpox vaccine is arriving in doctor's offices this week.

The new vaccine, called Varivax, was approved last month by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It's recommended for children and adults who haven't had the itchy, scabby and highly contagious illness.

Chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. Generally no more than a nuisance, it annually attacks about 3.9 million Americans, most of them under age 15. Typically, it keeps children home from school up to a week.

But it can be deadly. About 90 people die in the United States every year as a result of chickenpox. Another 9,300 have to be hospitalized. It strikes hardest in infants, adults and people with limited immunity. Adults are far more likely than children to be hospitalized.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending the vaccine for all children, adolescents and young adults who haven't had chickenpox.

For kids up to age 12, a single dose is all that's needed. Ideally, it should be given between 12 and 18 months old.

Teens and adults need two doses, four to eight weeks apart.

The drug manufacturer, Merck & Co., is charging $39 a dose.

The vaccine is considered safe. But there still are questions.

The foremost is: How long will the shot last? If you get chickenpox, you usually build enough immunity to protect you from getting it again. With the shot, no one knows.

Also, it's unclear how Varivax will affect shingles, which is caused by the chickenpox virus, usually after it's been latent in the body for decades.

Still, most doctors will recommend the shot, especially for adults.

"We don't know if it's better to get the disease and then have natural immunity," says Dr. Pepi Granat, a family physician in South Miami, Fla. "But people still die of chickenpox-induced pneumonia.

"If I hadn't ever had chickenpox, I'd get the vaccine. My adult daughters never had chickenpox, and I'm advising them to get it."

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