Chickenpox on the chopping block?

Vaccine prevents severe complications, but not all cases of the disease


Heather Cunningham


Three years after all Illinois kids entering daycare or elementary school were required to be vaccinated against chickenpox (varicella), the disease still hasn’t disappeared. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers show 24 kids in Illinois had chickenpox in 2005, up from one case the year before.

That doesn’t mean the vaccine isn’t working, says Dr. Julia McMillan, pediatric professor at John Hopkins University in Baltimore who sits on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on infectious disease. She says the vaccine has been 100 percent effective in preventing serious chickenpox complications.  

Still there are many who object to the varicella vaccine because it is the latest in a growing number of vaccines required for children. Kids are now vaccinated against 11 diseases, which means they will get about 20 doses of vaccine by the time they are age 2—on top of an annual influenza shot. Some say it is too much to put into little bodies, when not enough research has been done on the effects. (See Mercury, page 93.)

But McMillan says before the varicella vaccine, otherwise healthy children were hospitalized in critical condition because of complications. “We would see both staph and strep infections, and cases where the infection would be carried in the bloodstream and cause bone and brain infections and pneumonia,” she says. These were especially dangerous for children with compromised immune systems, such as children who have had an organ transplant or have HIV or cancer.

According to unpublished data from the CDC, between 1990 and 1994 an average of 43 children under age 15 died annually from chickenpox. And in the seven years before 1995 when the chickenpox vaccine was approved, up to 10,000 were hospitalized annually due to complications.

Today, children who have received the chickenpox vaccination are almost completely protected from the risk of these complications. Instead, children who get chickenpox after they have been immunized tend to have a milder form of the disease with fewer than 50 spots. “They may have a little bit of fever but they don’t feel sick, and are only slightly contagious,” says McMillan.

Still, she says, there has been discussions in the medical community about whether eliminating serious cases is enough—should it provide complete protection against chickenpox? “That dilemma is probably going to be solved in the next several years, as we begin offering the vaccine as a [measles/] mumps/rubella/varicella immunization,” she says. “Children will likely receive two doses of the varicella vaccination instead of the one that is currently recommended, and that could eliminate more cases of chickenpox.” [This new vaccine is still under review by the Food and Drug Administration.]

Protect against salmonella

This summer, 14 Cold Stone Creamery customers in Washington, Ohio, Oregon and Minnesota got salmonella after eating cake batter ice cream. But experts say it is just as easy to expose your family to the infection at home—especially during the hotter months of summer and early fall.

Last year 650 cases of salmonella were reported in Illinois. Many of them in children, who are more susceptible to the infection. “The younger they are, the sicker they get … the gastroenteritis can be pretty significant,” says McMillan.

Eating any foods contaminated by animal feces containing the salmonella bacteria can cause diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps for up to a week. In some cases, McMillan says, salmonella can cause diarrhea severe enough to require hospitalization. So, protecting children’s food is vital.

Both microorganisms and bacteria grow faster when it is warmer outside. Which means more outdoor cooking and eating, which can make temperature-controlling, washing and food storage more challenging. To the naked eye—and nose—tainted food can look and smell safe to eat.

McMillan stresses hand washing to avoid cross-contamination of meat and other foods during picnics and barbecues. “Wash their hands and wash their hands and wash their hands,” she says. “That and don’t put cooked foods from the grill back on the same plate that held the meat when it was raw.”

Making sure all meat and poultry is completely cooked, and avoiding unpasteurized milk and raw or undercooked eggs are also important. For more tips on safe food, visit and click on “Outdoor eating food safety tips.” 




Heather Cunningham is an award-winning writer living in Batavia who writes frequently on parenting and health issues.


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