It is one virus that starts small and appears to be harmless. Yet it can be fatal in both adults and children. Chickenpox is a viral infection caused by the herpes varicella zoster virus. It is spread in droplets inhaled into the respiratory tract. Complications are rare and can occur in previously healthy children.
In the United Kingdom, UK, for instance, 700,000 children every year have chickenpox and children are normally out of school for an average of five days as a result of the infection. In the United States, unlike in the UK, children are vaccinated against chickenpox. It is one of nearly a dozen inoculations that American youngsters must undergo – exemptions apart – by the time they reach the age of six. That is twice as many as their counterparts in the UK, where public concern over childhood vaccines has largely died down after the work of Dr Andrew Wakefield, linking measles, mumps and rubella, MMR, vaccine to autism, was discredited. Wakefield was struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council after it found him guilty of serious professional misconduct over the way he carried out his research.
In Nigeria, chickenpox vaccination has been available by GlaxoSmithKline – Varilrix – since 2003. Parents can request for the vaccination for their children as it is not one of the prerequisite vaccinations for children.
Chickenpox is a mild and common childhood illness that most children contract at some point. It causes a rash of red, itchy spots that turn into fluid-filled blisters. They then crust over to form scabs, which eventually drop off. Some children have only a few spots, but in others they can cover the entire body. The spots are most likely to appear on the face, ears and scalp, under the arms, on the chest and belly and on the arms and legs.
It is important for parents to know the symptoms of chickenpox. Even before the rash appears, the child may have some mild flu-like symptoms including: feeling sick, a high temperature (fever) of 38ºC (100.4ºF) or over, aching, painful muscles, headache, generally feeling unwell, loss of appetite. These flu-like symptoms, especially the fever, tend to be worse in adults than in children. Soon after the flu-like symptoms, an itchy rash appears. Some children and adults may only have a few spots, but others are covered from head to toe. The spots normally appear in clusters and tend to be behind the ears, on the face, over the scalp, under the arms, on the chest and belly as well as on the arms and legs.
To prevent spreading the infection, keep children off school until all the spots have crusted over. Chickenpox is most infectious from one to two days before the rash starts, until all the blisters have crusted over (usually five to six days after the start of the rash). If your child has chickenpox, try to keep them away from public areas to avoid contact with people who have not had it, especially people who are at risk of serious problems, such as newborn babies, pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system (for example, people having cancer treatment or taking steroid tablets).
Chickenpox in children is considered a mild illness, but expect the child to feel pretty miserable and irritable while they have it. Your child is likely to have a fever at least for the first few days of the illness. The spots can be incredibly itchy. There is no specific treatment for chickenpox, but there are pharmacy remedies, which can alleviate symptoms, such as paracetamol to relieve fever and calamine lotion and cooling gels to ease itching. In most children, the blisters crust up and fall off naturally within one to two weeks. There is no cure for chickenpox, and the virus usually clears up by itself without any treatment. However, there are ways of easing the itch and discomfort, and there are important steps you can take to stop chicken pox spreading. Basic tips include: keep your child hydrated, wear cool clothing, cut finger nails to minimise itch and in some instances for adults anti-virals would be prescribed to prevent the formation of more pimple-like spots.