Scientists recommend chickenpox vaccine for children in Britain's NHS

JCVI calls for two-dose inoculation, saying effectiveness and safety have been proven

Despite being commonly perceived as a mild illness, chickenpox can lead to death in severe cases. Getty Images
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The chickenpox vaccine should be introduced for children in Britain's publicly funded healthcare system, scientists have told the government.

The vaccine should be given to children aged 12 to 18 months in the National Health Service, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said.

It added that the vaccine, also known as the varicella shot, should be administered in two doses, at 12 months and then at 18 months.

The recommendations are supported by data from other countries, where the vaccine has significantly reduced the prevalence of chickenpox and prevented most severe cases in children.

The JCVI suggested a temporary catch-up programme for older children who miss the initial vaccination age.

Officials in the Department of Health and Social Care were reviewing the recommendation.

University of Oxford studies found that two doses of the vaccine – given as two separate injections at least four weeks apart – give about 98 per cent protection in children and about 75 per cent protection in teenagers and adults.

Historically, the NHS has been hesitant to introduce the chickenpox vaccine, citing concerns that it might increase the risk of chickenpox and shingles in adults.

The underlying reasoning was that vaccination would prevent childhood infection, potentially leading to more severe cases in unvaccinated adults.

However, there has been a shift in perspective based on new data and international experiences.

Prof Sir Andrew Pollard, chairman of the JCVI, emphasised the seriousness of chickenpox, particularly in babies, younger children, and adults.

“Chickenpox is well known, and most parents will probably consider it a common and mild illness among children,” he said.

“But for some babies, young children and even adults, chickenpox or its complications can be very serious, resulting in hospitalisation and even death.”

Adding the varicella vaccine to the childhood immunisation programme will dramatically reduce the number of chickenpox cases in the community, Prof Pollard said, leading to far fewer of the more serious cases.

“We now have decades of evidence from the US and other countries showing that introducing this programme is safe, effective and will have a really positive impact on the health of young children,” he said.

What is chickenpox?

Chickenpox, caused by the varicella-zoster virus, is an acute and highly contagious disease.

Up to 90 per cent of non-immune individuals in close contact with an infected person are at risk of infection.

The disease begins with mild fever and headaches, followed by a rash that develops into itchy fluid-filled blisters. The virus spreads through direct contact with the rash, airborne droplets, or infected items like clothing.

Symptoms typically appear 14 to 21 days after infection. Infectiousness peaks one to two days before the rash and continues until all blisters crust over.

After chickenpox infection, the virus can remain dormant in the nervous system and reactivate years later as shingles (herpes zoster).

It mostly affects children under 10 and spreads rapidly in close-contact settings like schools.

While usually mild in children, chickenpox can be more severe in adolescents, adults, and specific groups like newborns, pregnant women, and the immunocompromised.

Possible complications include pneumonia, secondary bacterial infections, encephalitis, and in rare cases, death.

In pregnant women, varicella infection can lead to severe chickenpox and congenital varicella syndrome in the foetus, causing limb deformities, skin scarring, cataracts, and growth retardation.

Symptom management mainly involves reducing fever and itchiness.

Antiviral drugs and immunoglobulin are available for high-risk individuals to prevent severe illness.

Chickenpox is endemic worldwide, with peak outbreaks in winter and spring in temperate climates.

By age 15, nine out of 10 people in the UK have had chickenpox.

Two vaccines are licensed in the UK. Vaccination is advised for children close to high-risk individuals and non-immune healthcare workers.

Updated: November 14, 2023, 1:16 PM