Chickenpox Vaccine Saving Lives

Deaths down since program began in 1995, CDC reports

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 2, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- A new reckoning finds that America's nationwide chickenpox vaccination program has saved even more lives than previously thought, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

The new count lists not only deaths directly caused by chickenpox, but also those in which it played a contributory role. It shows that the number of deaths dropped from an annual average of 145 in the years before 1995, when the vaccine became available in the United States, to 66 a year from 1999 to 2001, according to a study in the Feb. 3 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

And progress is continuing, said study author Dr. Jane F. Seward, chief of the Viral Vaccine Preventable Disease Branch of the CDC.

"We now have early data from 2002, and it has shown a continued decline in deaths," Seward said. "We might see some year-to-year fluctuations in the future but, in general, we expect to see a continued decline."

The reason for this drop is simply that more and more children are getting the vaccine, she said. Latest figures show that 85 percent of children aged 1 to 4 were vaccinated in 2003, up from 76 percent in previous years.

Those numbers send a message to other nations, Seward said. The United States is the only country that has adopted a plan to give all children the chickenpox vaccine, and the impressive results are starting to draw attention elsewhere, she said.

"Germany wants to start a program for universal vaccination, and Canada is just starting one," Seward said.

There is probably a combination of reasons to explain why the goal of 100 percent vaccination has not been achieved, she said. "Physicians strongly recommend the vaccine, but this is one of the last to be given and sometimes children don't come back for the shots," Stewart said. "And while every state but one requires vaccination against measles, not every state requires chickenpox vaccine."

Continued vigilance is needed, said Dr. Marietta Vazquez, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Yale University School of Medicine, and author of an accompanying editorial.

"That the vaccine now works is well known," she said. "But what happens down the road, five years or 10 years from now? Will the protection be as good? That is a common question with any vaccine."

Vazquez and her colleagues are monitoring the long-term effectiveness of the vaccine. "We have data showing that up to seven years after vaccination, protection is still very good," she said.

However, there have been outbreaks of chickenpox among children who have received the vaccine, her editorial noted. While this "breakthrough" form of the disease tends to be mild, a second shot of vaccine might be needed to protect children in schools where an outbreak occurs, she said.

More information

What you need to know about chickenpox is told by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Jane F. Seward, M.D., chief, Viral Vaccine Preventable Disease Branch, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Marietta Vazquez, M.D., assistant professor, pediatrics, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.; Feb. 3, 2005, New England Journal of Medicine
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