Parents who think chickenpox is extinct take heed: Unvaccinated children are still catching the itchy, scabby disease, according to a small but first-of-its kind study. The study, published today in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, offers a counterargument to parents who think vaccines for waning and seemingly innocuous diseases like chickenpox don’t matter.Even though the illness has become less prevalent since a vaccine was introduced in 1995, chickenpox still can be serious and even deadly for pregnant women, infants and people with weak immune systems, according to the study. Parents who refuse the chickenpox, or varicella, vaccine help perpetuate the disease.
“The vaccine against varicella … is the most commonly refused childhood vaccine,” according to the study by researchers at Kaiser Permanente’s Institute for Health Research in Denver. The study was led by Jason Glanz of the Colorado School of Public Health. “As vaccine refusal increases in the United States, health care providers are in a uniquely trusted position to influence immunization behavior.”
The study focused on 133 children enrolled in the Kaiser Permanente health plan who developed chickenpox between 1998 and 2008. Seven children who did not get the vaccine because of parental refusal became ill.
Compared with a control group of 493 children who received the vaccine, “children of vaccine-refusing parents had a nine-fold increase of varicella illness,” according to the study.
Since 2004, New Jersey has mandated chickenpox vaccine for children 12 months and older attending day care as well as public and private schools. The state allows exceptions for medical as well as religious reasons, although proof of religion is not required.
“We take them at their word,” according to state epidemiologist Tina Tan. The immunization rate for all illnesses among New Jersey’s children is high – about 95 percent to 96 percent for the past two years, Tan said.
Barbara Flynn of Summit, a parent and founder of the anti-vaccine group, CHERUBS, Children Having Everybody Really Upset ‘Bout Shots, said she has helped many families seek exemptions, primarily because their children have chronic illnesses.
Flynn said she opposes a chickenpox vaccine mandate, particularly because there can be serious side effects from the it.
“I grew up in the ’50s and everybody got the chickenpox,” Flynn said. “We have huge disease epidemics we didn’t have then.”
For most people, chickenpox is a minor illness.
There were 426 reports of chickenpox in New Jersey between April and December 2009, the first year the illness was required to be reported, Tan said.
Meg Fisher, medical director for the Children’s Hospital at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, said the figure could be artificially low because many physicians may not know they are supposed to report the illness.