Chickenpox vaccination compulsory for babies

Babies under one year old will be required to have the chickenpox vaccine when it becomes available by the end of the year.

ABU DHABI // Babies under one year old will be required to have the chickenpox vaccine when it becomes available by the end of the year. The varicella vaccine, which protects against the highly contagious disease, had until now only been offered on the advice of a doctor, the Ministry of Health said. It will now be free of charge and compulsory for children after being approved by the ministry's Higher National Immunisation Committee.

The move brings the UAE into line with other countries such as the United States and Japan, where the jab has been compulsory for some time. At present, only the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) jab is given automatically to children in the UAE as part of the national immunisation programme. Dr Mahmoud Fikri, the ministry's executive director of health legislation and policies, said the vaccine was first made available in the UAE in 2000.

"In the beginning of its production, not all countries were administering the vaccine and we only had it available here for some patients, based on the recommendation of doctors," said Dr Fikri. "However, now that it is approved by the World Heath Organisation and included in the national immunisation programmes of countries worldwide, we have recommended that it be approved to be part of our programme in the UAE as well, and it has been accepted."

The compulsory vaccinations will include the babies of expatriates as well as nationals. As soon as the vaccine becomes available in the UAE, which Dr Fikri predicted would be towards the third quarter of the year, it will automatically be administered to children in their 12th month. "The availability of this type of a vaccine will reduce the circulation of the virus at a global level, so kids don't infect one another," said Dr Fikri. "The world has become a village, and if a child in the US or Japan is vaccinated, then a child in the UAE should be vaccinated as well, as long as we have the capabilities to provide the vaccine."

Dr Mona Rifai, a specialist paediatrician working in Abu Dhabi, said that although chickenpox was rarely dangerous in children, it could have serious consequences. "Some of the severe complications that set in with chickenpox are diseases like pneumonia and respiratory infections, and chickenpox can be very severe in adults," she said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, the varicella vaccine "is the best way to prevent chickenpox. Vaccination not only protects vaccinated persons, it also reduces the risk for exposure in the community for persons unable to be vaccinated because of illness or other conditions, including those who may be at greater risk for severe disease."

The chickenpox vaccine was first licensed for use in Japan and Korea in 1988 and, after further development, in the US in 1995. Since then, the number of hospital cases and deaths from the illness in those countries has declined by more than 90 per cent.