I’ve got vivid memories of my childhood bout with Chickenpox. I remember lying miserable in bed for days as I assume plenty of my fellow first graders were doing at the same time, given that the disease is highly contagious and spread by coughing and other contact. There’s a rash, that forms itchy blisters and fever, tiredness and headaches are the minimum of the misery for about a week. Complications can include pneumonia and inflammation of the brain. It’s potentially much more severe if you have the misfortune to contract it as an adult.
In 1984, there was a real game changer as the Varicella vaccine, also known as chickenpox vaccine, became available. Medical studies say one dose of the vaccine prevents 95 percent of moderate disease and 100 percent of severe disease. So millions of kids are missing out on an experience that has been a traditional rite of passage for centuries. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the Chickenpox virus stays with you, once it’s established. The immune system keeps the virus at bay, but later in life, usually in an adult, it can be reactivated and cause a different form of the viral infection called shingles (also known as herpes zoster). That’s why the United States Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices suggests that every adult over the age of 60 years get the herpes zoster vaccine.
This came to be a matter of concern to me about a decade ago when I learned that an otherwise healthy friend of a friend had died of complications of shingles. I wanted my herpes zoster vaccine and wanted it now, but learned that it was not routinely available on Guam. Then, in 2017 and out of the blue, I got a phone call from a VA medical worker visiting from Hawaii who had spotted my name on a waiting list for the vaccine. I was at the clinic with my sleeve rolled up within ten minutes.
And now comes the really good news, named Shingrix, which the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline intends to begin shipping this month. Large international trials have shown that the vaccine prevents more than 90 percent of shingles cases, even at older ages. The currently available shingles vaccine, called Zostavax which I received, only prevents about half of shingles cases in those over age 60 and has demonstrated far less effectiveness among elderly patients.
Various medical professionals are describing this as a “sea change.” According to a New York Times report, Dr. William Schaffner, preventive disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said, “This vaccine has spectacular initial protection rates in every age group. The immune system of a 70- or 80-year-old responds as if the person were only 25 or 30.”
Controversy about vaccinations has been around as long as vaccinations. Smallpox once killed millions annually, but the vaccination for it has nearly eliminated this menace. In its early days in the early 19th century however it was met with sanitary, religious, scientific and political objections.
The MMR vaccination against Measles, Mumps and Rubella is routinely given against these other scourges, but in the late 90s, a report published in a British medical journal claimed a link between the vaccine and autism and bowel disease. That report was later withdrawn by its publisher.
My late mother, a Medical Service Corps officer during World War II, nursed her two sons through Chickenpox, Measles and other childhood afflictions. She had absolutely no use for the ‘anti-vax’ crowd, which periodically came to public attention over the years. If these vaccinations had been available back then, we would have shortly been in the doctor’s office rolling up our sleeves.