Starting Saturday, health officials with the Southern District Health Board in New Zealand will be offering chickenpox, or varicella vaccine to children aged 15 months and 11 years free of charge.

This comes as the health board is dealing with chickenpox outbreaks at several schools in Otago and Southland.

This pustulovesicular rash represents a generalized herpes outbreak due to the Varicella-zoster virus (VZV) pathogen/CDC
This pustulovesicular rash represents a generalized herpes outbreak due to the Varicella-zoster virus (VZV) pathogen/CDC

According to Naomi Gough, Medical Officer for Public Health South, “Each year approximately 50,000 New Zealanders, most of them children, contract chicken pox. The illness typically lasts between 5 and 10 days and as well as being a horrible experience for children, parents and caregivers will need to keep a child home, for up to two weeks, to stop them spreading the disease to others. This means potential time off work and, if there are other children in the house, they too have a high chance of catching chicken pox, which in turn means more time off.

“Some children are hospitalized with chicken pox, which is a significant and serious event for not only a child but also for their family,” says Dr Gough. “What’s more it can lead to long term disability in children and some even die from the disease. The changes being introduced will help to dramatically reduce the incidence of chicken pox in our communities and in turn reduce hospitalizations, disability and mortality outcomes related to the virus.”

Chickenpox is a common, usually benign childhood disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), a member of the herpes family. This virus causes two distinct diseases; varicella (chickenpox) is the primary infection, and later when VSV reactivates,herpes zoster (shingles).

Chickenpox is highly contagious and is spread by coughing and sneezing, by direct contact and by aerosolization of the virus from skin lesions. You can also get it by contact with the vesicle secretions from shingles.

The disease is characterized by fever and a red, itchy skin rash of that usually starts on the abdomen, back or face and then spreads to nearly all parts of the body. The rash begins as small red bumps that appear as pimples or insect bites. They then develop into thin-walled blisters that are filled with clear fluid which collapse on puncture. The blisters then breaks, crusts over, and leaves dry brown scabs.

What is smallpox and how does the clinical presentation differ from chickenpox?

The chickenpox lesions may be present in several stages of maturity and are more abundant on covered skin rather than exposed. Lesions may also be found in the mouth, upper respiratory tract and genitals.

Chickenpox is contagious from 1-2 days before the rash forms and continues until all the lesions are crusted over (usually about 5 days).

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This disease is more serious in adults than in children. Complications of chickenpox are rare, but include pneumonia, encephalitis and secondary bacterial infections.

Infection with this virus usually gives lifelong immunity, although second attacks have been documented in immunocompromised people. The viral infection remains latent, and disease may recur years later as shingles.

According to Dr Gough, many parents still have a complacent attitude when it comes to chicken pox, “Parents need to take the disease more seriously. Some see chicken pox as a ‘rite of passage’ for children but in fact this completely preventable disease makes kids utterly miserable and can have numerous negative consequences. It makes complete sense to protect your child, your community and your family from the impacts of chicken pox.”

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