Introduced to Australia in 2005, the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine has substantially reduced the incidence of this common childhood infection, according to a new report.

Communicable Diseases Intelligence examined the impact of the chickenpox vaccine administered to children at 18 months of age. Pre- vaccine availability, Australia had an estimated 240,000 chickenpox cases each year, including 1,500 hospitalisations and between one-and-16 deaths from the highly contagious infection.

The review examined Australian trends in chickenpox between 1998 – 2015 to ascertain the impact of a funded vaccine. After being placed on the National Immunisation Program (NIP) in 2005, there was a rapid decline in chickenpox notifications, hospitalisations, and deaths. Hospitalisations declined in all age groups affected by the infection aged under 40 years, while our nation witnessed an 84 per cent reduction in hospitalisations for children under six years of age.

About chickenpox

Chickenpox most commonly affects children. It is generally mild, but may result in serious illness, or even death for those with compromised immunity.  The infection is spread by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes herpes zoster, better known as shingles. The virus is present in, and behind the nose, and spreads from one child to the next through sneezing and coughing. Symptoms usually present two-to-three weeks post- infection with the virus. Chickenpox symptoms can include:

A small fever and cold-like symptoms, followed by a rash that presents in blisters that crust over to form scabs, which are usually itchy. The rash is often more obvious on the body’s trunk than the limbs, but can also affect the scalp, inside of the mouth, and the throat and nose.

More than 95 per cent of Australian kids who are not vaccinated against chickenpox will develop the infection during childhood. Severe cases of chickenpox can particularly affect children with leukaemia, as well as young babies and pregnant women. Should chickenpox occur around the time of birth, the baby will be at heightened risk of infection, with up to 30 per cent of newborns falling extremely ill from the infection.