While the rate of chickenpox in the United States has rapidly declined over the last couple of decades, some say that shingles – a painful rash caused by the same virus – is on the rise. Some parents worry that this means the vaccine is actually causing the rise. However, experts say this just isn’t the case.
According to Dr. William Schaffner, doctor of preventative medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee and a leading infectious disease expert, shingles and chickenpox are related; they’re both caused by the varicella zoster virus.
When children are exposed to the chickenpox virus, it remains dormant in the body, even after the scabs heal and diminish. If the virus is reactivated later on in life, shingles – a painful rash on one side of the body or face – develops.
The chickenpox vaccine does contain a weakened version of the virus, which could trigger shingles later in life. However, Schaffner says that, not only is this an extremely rare occurrence, it’s also not possible that this is the cause behind today’s rise in shingles.
Shingles is typically found in older adults – those over the age of 60. The vaccine has only been around for a couple of decades. This means that those suffering from shingles now most likely contracted the full virus at some point during their childhood.
“Today’s adults who are getting shingles are clearly getting it from the latent chickenpox virus that they acquired as children, and not from the vaccine, which wasn’t around when they were young,” Schaffner told Live Science, adding that the rise could be due, in part, to the fact that people are now living longer. “People are living longer and therefore have more opportunity to contract shingles.”
But with the vaccine – which does contain a weaker form of the virus – very few children develop full-blown chickenpox. Their chances of developing shingles later in life are also rather low.
“Nearly 99 percent of children who receive the vaccine will not get chickenpox at all,” Schaffner said. “The remaining one percent who do get it will get a much milder version of it. Therefore, a vast majority of people receiving the immunization will not develop shingles later in life.”
There are some rare but serious complications that can arise in children suffering from the full-blown chickenpox virus, like encephalitis (an infection and inflammation of the brain) and infection of the blisters, which can lead to the strep bacteria finding its way into the bloodstream. The best way to protect against these rare but possible complications is to have your child immunized, which Schaffner highly recommends.
“I would absolutely recommend that parents immunize their children against chickenpox,” he said.
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