The Chicken Pox Vaccine

by Barbara Loe Fisher

In March, 1995, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) licensed the chicken pox vaccine and immediately the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), vaccine policymakers, announced they were recommending that all children between twelve and fifteen months of age and individuals over thirteen years old, who have not had chicken pox, be vaccinated. This live virus vaccine was originally developed for immune compromised children such as those with leukemia, who are at very high risk for dying or being disabled by the usually mild chicken pox disease, and the vaccine has been embroiled in controversy since it began to be developed. Continuing questions about its efficacy and side effects stalled its licensure in America for several years.

Chicken pox is caused by the varicella zoster virus, a relative of the herpes virus, and for most healthy children it is a mild two week disease which causes an intense itching of small, open skin lesions. Rarely, the lesions can become infected and cause a severe, life threatening bacterial infection or the disease can lead to brain damage or even death. The death rate for chicken pox is reported to be 1.4 per 100,000 cases in healthy children but rises to nearly 31 per 100,00 cases in adults.

The controversy surrounding the chicken pox vaccine in the medical literature has centered on the fact that chicken pox is usually a mild disease in children but is often a serious disease in adults. The vaccine is estimated to give from five to ten years worth of temporary immunity and there is a fear among some researchers that mass vaccination will drive the disease out of the childhood population into the adult population where it is much more deadly. Booster doses of chicken pox vaccine will probably have to be given throughout life (a lucrative possibility for vaccine manufacturers and doctors) and there is also a concern that the life virus vaccine will lie dormant in many vaccinated individuals and reactivate later in life in the form of herpes zoster (shingles) or other immune system disorders.

This potential change in the epidemiology of a childhood disease has already occurred with mass vaccination for what used to be another common childhood disease: measles. In past generations the majority of children recovered from measles without permanent damage but, today, young vaccinated mothers who have not recovered from measles naturally do not have the natural antibodies to passively transfer to their babies to protect them for the first year of life. Today, a much more severe measles disease is occurring in babies under a year as well as in older children, college age students and adults. The vaccine‘s temporary effectiveness has driven measles disease out of the normal population, where it was less severe, into infant and adult populations where it can be more deadly.

The FDA estimates that the chicken pox vaccine is from 70 to 90 percent effective in temporarily preventing the disease. Common short term side effects are listed as redness, hardness and swelling at the site of the injection as well as fatigue and nausea. Long term side effects are unknown because children in the studies used to license the vaccine were only followed up for ten years. The chicken pox vaccine will cost physicians $39 per dose.The National Vaccine Information Center takes the position that the chicken pox vaccine should not be added to the mandatory vaccination list, and that parents should have the right to exercise informed consent and freely choose whether or not the chicken pox vaccine is appropriate for their child. To obtain more information, contact the National Vaccine Information Center at or 800-909-SHOT.

Barbara Loe Fisher is Co-Founder and President National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) and Co-author of Dpt: A Shot in the DarkA Shot in the Dark

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume i, Number 3 - Winter, 1995-1996]

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