There’s a common misconception that chickenpox is a harmless childhood illness which, while uncomfortable, won’t have any lasting effects on children beyond a few weeks off of school. Every year, 50,000 Kiwis get chickenpox – most of them children – and many parents see it as a “rite of passage” that they just need to ride out.
Actually, chickenpox can cause severe discomfort, itching, and blisters which can leave permanent scars where the pocks – aka pockmarks – from the chickenpox pustules don’t heal properly. It can cause pneumonia, kidney problems, heart conditions, and joint and nervous system problems, and some children may even need to be hospitalised.
It’s also isolating, as children will need to stay home from school and daycare, and away from other people who have not had the disease or the immunisation, for one week from the appearance of the rash until all of the blisters have dried up. With chickenpox being seriously contagious, one child who has it will undoubtedly pass it to other children in the house – meaning parents’ time off of work caring for sick children will only increase.
In the worst-case scenarios – and they do happen here in NZ – chickenpox will leave some children with lifelong, serious health complications. Children with compromised immune systems are even more at risk of dying if they catch it. Unborn babies and newborns are particularly at risk if a pregnant mum catches chickenpox or if the newborn is exposed to it.
Fortunately, the chickenpox vaccine, Varilrix, was added to the National Immunisation Schedule this past July. This means that all children born after April 2016 will receive the chickenpox vaccine at their 15-month immunisation. It’s also funded for children who turn 11 after 1 July 2017, if they haven’t previously been infected with chickenpox or had the vaccination.
But if your child was born before April 2016, they aren’t eligible to receive the funded chickenpox vaccine until they are 11 years old – which, for many children, will be too late as they’ll likely catch chickenpox between now and their 11th birthday. Fortunately, you can still purchase Varilrix from your GP, and save your family the stress and misery of chickenpox.