Chickenpox vaccines on the NHS should be given to children, suggests JCVI
Children in the UK should be offered a chickenpox vaccine on the NHS, says the body which advises the government on immunisations.
In a change to current guidelines, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation says it also now believes a catch-up programme should be made available to older children so they too can be protected.
What is chickenpox?
Chickenpox is a highly infectious disease caused by the varicella zoster virus and while it mostly affects children it can be caught at any age.
Most varicella cases in youngsters are relatively mild, however some children, says the NHS, will go on to develop complications, including serious bacterial infections such as group A streptococcus.
In rare cases it can cause a swelling of the brain, called encephalitis, inflammation of the lungs, called pneumonitis, and stroke, which can result in hospitalisation and, in very rare cases, death.
The vaccine against varicella, or chickenpox, is already given routinely in many other countries including the US, Austrialia, Canada and Germany. In America – its vaccination programme has been in place since 1995.
Experts now feel the jab should be added to the UK’s routine childhood immunisation programme and given to children in two doses when they are aged 12 and 18 months.
At present, any family wanting to immunise their child needs to do so privately.
The committee has this week submitted its recommendations to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), which will take the final decision on whether to implement its advice and offer the jab to families for free.
The change would bring the UK in line with other countries, says the report, which have all noticed ‘significant decreases’ in the number of cases of chickenpox and subsequent hospitalisations as a result of complications the virus has caused.
The JCVI says it would also like to see a temporary catch-up programme for older children included in the initial rollout of any new vaccination programme because – as a result of lockdown- there is currently a larger than normal pool of children without any immunity to chickenpox.
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, Chair of the JCVI, said: “Chickenpox is well known, and most parents will probably consider it a common and mild illness among children. But for some babies, young children and even adults, chickenpox or its complications can be very serious, resulting in hospitalisation and even death.
“We now have decades of evidence from the USA and other countries showing that introducing this programme is safe, effective and will have a really positive impact on the health of young children.”
Shingles and chickenpox
In 2009 a UK-wide immunisation programme was ruled out by the JCVI amid concerns that removing community transmission of chickenpox might go on to cause more cases of shingles in middle-aged adults.
Because varicella can cause shingles in adults that have previously had chickenpox, evidence back then suggested removing periodic boosts to people’s immunity which they get when they encounter varicella circulating in the community might see incidents of shingles rise.
However medics say a long-term study in the US has now disproved this theory and this evidence – combined with recent research from the University of Bristol that provided new information on the extent of chickenpox’s impact on children and the NHS – has paved the way for a possible UK-wide programme.
Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam, Deputy Director of Public Health Programmes at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said: “Introducing a vaccine against chickenpox would prevent most children getting what can be quite a nasty illness – and for those who would experience more severe symptoms, it could be a life saver.
“The JCVI’s recommendations will help make chickenpox a problem of the past and bring the UK into line with a number of other countries that have well-established programmes.”