The chickenpox vaccine protects against the varicella zoster virus that causes chickenpox.
This vaccine is not part of the routine childhood vaccination schedule and is only offered to those who are in close contact with someone who is particularly vulnerable to chickenpox or its complications.
The vaccine, is however given as part of the routine vaccination schedule in some other countries, such as the US and Germany.
Who is at risk from chickenpox?
Almost all children develop immunity to chickenpox after infection, so most only catch it once. However, in adults, the disease can be more severe. People at greater risk of serious complications from chickenpox include:
- people who have weakened immune systems through illnesses such as HIV, or treatments like chemotherapy
- pregnant women – chickenpox can be very serious for an unborn baby when a pregnant woman catches the infection. It can cause a range of serious birth defects, as well as severe disease in the baby when it is born.
Who should have the chickenpox vaccine?
The chickenpox vaccine is recommended for certain individuals, such as:
- non-immune healthcare workers
- people who come into close contact with someone who has a weakened immune system
How is the chickenpox vaccine given?
The vaccine is given as 2 separate injections, usually into the upper arm, 4 to 8 weeks apart.
How does the chickenpox vaccine work?
The chickenpox vaccine is a live vaccine and contains a small amount of weakened chickenpox-causing virus. It stimulates your immune system to produce antibodies that will help protect against chickenpox.
How effective is the chickenpox vaccine?
Studies show that 9 out of 10 children vaccinated with a single dose will develop immunity against chickenpox. Having 2 doses as recommended gives an even better immune response.
It must be noted that vaccination is not quite as effective after childhood and approximately 75% of teenagers and adults who are vaccinated will become immune to chickenpox.
Are there any side-effects I should worry about?
There is no evidence of any increased risk of developing a long-term health condition as a result of the vaccination.
Common side effects include:
- soreness and redness around the injection site
- a mild rash
- high temperature
Rarely, a serious allergic reaction may occur. This will be dealth with promptly by the person vaccinating you.
How can I check if I had chickenpox as a child?
The first thing you can do is ask your parents/family. Your GP may also have noted that you had chickenpox in your medical records.
What treatments are available to people in ‘at-risk’ groups if they cannot have the vaccine and are exposed to chickenpox?
People with weakened immune systems and pregnant women without immunity who are exposed to chickenpox can be given a medication called varicella zoster immunoglobulin (VZIG).
VZIG contains chickenpox virus-fighting antibodies, and can reduce symptoms of chickenpox and lower the risk of complications for those exposed to the infection.
What if I recently had the chickenpox vaccine and then find out I am pregnant?
If you find out you are pregnant within a month of having the chickenpox vaccine, it is best to contact your GP for advice.