90% of children in the UK will get chickenpox at some point – usually by the age of 10. Although other countries vaccinate children routinely to prevent them getting it at all, the UK has never followed suit. But that looks set to change.
Just recently the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation), which advises UK health departments on vaccine roll-outs, has recommended the NHS now include the chickenpox vaccine as part of its childhood immunisation programme.
But why now and how will it work? Here’s what you need to know.
Chickenpox vaccine: is it necessary?
Although chickenpox is not considered a dangerous disease, it is highly infectious and unpleasant. It can sometimes lead to complications, although this is relatively rare.
Catching it also means taking at least five days off school, nursery or work, until the last spot has crusted over and you’re no longer contagious.
‘Other countries such as the US and Australia have been vaccinating their children routinely against it for years. The UK has looked into doing the same but has always found it not to be cost effective. Now, having looked at over a decade’s worth of data they’ve recommended it to the government and it is with them to decide,’ says ZoomDoc GP, Dr Jenny Ellenbogen.
Health experts have also been monitoring whether giving children the chickenpox vaccine increases the risk of shingles cases in middle age. Data taken from other countries shows this not to be the case.
Is the chickenpox vaccine safe?
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, chairman of the JCVI, says:
‘We now have decades of evidence from the US and other countries showing that introducing this programme is safe, effective and will have a really positive impact on the health of young children.
‘Adding the varicella vaccine to the childhood immunisation programme will dramatically reduce the number of chickenpox cases in the community, leading to far fewer of those tragic, more serious cases.’
‘This vaccine has decades of data behind it and is already used privately as well as by the NHS for eligible groups who need it,’ adds Dr Jenny.
There is also categorically no link to this vaccine (or any other) and autism, confirmed by the National Autistic Society which says:
‘There is no link between autism and vaccines. Much research has been devoted to this issue over the years and the results have comprehensively shown there is no link.’
How will the chickenpox vaccine be rolled out?
The details are still to be confirmed. However, the JCVI has recommended a similar approach to Australia and the US where it is added to the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, rubella).
This would then become a two-dose MMRV jab – with the ‘V’ standing for varicella, the virus that causes chickenpox – given at the age of 12 months and again at 18 months.
There would also be a catch-up for slightly older children, to prevent a gap in immunity.
However, if your child is due their MMR jab now or hasn’t had it yet, ‘don’t wait’, says Dr Jenny.
‘Cases of measles are on the rise and with uptake of the MMR vaccine amongst under fives the lowest it has been in 10 years, this is concerning. The best way to protect yourself and others from measles – a potentially life-threatening disease – is to get vaccinated,’ she says.
Chickenpox vaccines: where can I get one now?
Currently the NHS only offers a free chickenpox vaccine to anyone living with someone whose health could be at risk if they caught chickenpox. For instance, with a weakened immune system or undergoing chemotherapy.
Until the government confirms when the NHS will roll out chickenpox vaccines and when this might start, you can get it via a private vaccination.
Private chickenpox vaccines are available via pharmacies or private hospitals and will usually charge around £150 for a full course (two doses).
Travelling with chickenpox: do I need a ‘Fit To Fly’ certificate
Until your child is vaccinated to prevent them catching chickenpox, there’s always a chance it will appear just before or during a holiday, potentially delaying your flight abroad or return journey.
Airlines won’t let you fly until the spots have crusted over and you’ll also need an official ‘Fit To Fly’ letter, which ZoomDoc can provide easily and quickly.
Simply download it here and for £45 you can get a same-day ‘Chickenpox Recovery Fit To Fly’ certificate proving you’re fit to fly and no longer contagious, once the last spot has crusted over.
Top tips for coping with chickenpox
Before chickenpox (hopefully) becomes a thing of the past, there are simple ways of coping with the itchiness of the spots when it strikes:
Keep nails short – scratching the blisters and not letting them crust over naturally can make pox sore, infected or scar.
Add oats to your bath water – fill a sock or the foot of some tights with them, tie it up and add to bath water or let the tap water run through it for a skin soothing bath.
Ask your pharmacist – products such as Virasoothe can help with the itch better than classic products, such as calamine lotion, which can dry out the skin.
Don’t give ibuprofen – this can cause a skin infection so never use ibuprofen to treat chickenpox.