MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Minnesota Department of Health says it’s seeing an uptick in cases of chickenpox in Minnesota. So far this year, there have been 390 reported cases of the virus compared to an average of 300 to 350. That’s a huge change from what was once considered a rite of passage for childhood.
So, what happened to chickenpox?
For most people over the age of 12, they can recall the details of when they came down with chickenpox. Whether they missed a birthday party or were placed in a room with their siblings or sat in oatmeal baths for hours, it was a memorable experience.
For many, the symptoms were just an itchy rash and fever that subsided after a few days. But, for a minority of others, the virus was more serious.
“That’s true, chicken pox can be mild, but it can also have quite a few complications,” says Cynthia Kenyon, an epidemiologist who heads up the Vaccine Preventable Disease Surveillance Unit at the Minnesota Department of Health.
Complications, which are more likely to affect teenagers and adults than children, can include skin infections, pneumonia and inflammation of the brain.
The chickenpox (varicella) vaccine became available in the U.S. in 1995. It was recommended for Minnesota schools in 2004. By 2017, all 50 states and the District of Columbia now require it to enter kindergarten. Children now get a first dose at 12-15 months old and second dose at 4 to 6 years old.
“What happened is that we have the ability to prevent it,” says Kenyon.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 4 million reported cases of chickenpox a year in the U.S. before the vaccine became widely available. Back then, chickenpox causes an average of 11,000 hospitalizations/year and 100-150 deaths/year. The CDC says cases are now down by 90 percent. In 2016, there were three deaths nationwide due to chickenpox.
Kenyon says the people who still get chickenpox are most likely to be children whose parents have chosen not to vaccinate them as well as teenagers or adults were never vaccinated.
People who have had chickenpox won’t get it again and the vaccine is effective about 90 percent of the time. If an adult doesn’t remember if he or she had chickenpox as a child, that person can be tested for immunity. Adults can get the chickenpox vaccine if it turns out they are not immune.
Both the chickenpox virus and the chickenpox vaccine (a weakened form of the virus) can later develop into a shingles. But, according to Kenyon, research shows shingles occurs less often among vaccinated children than those who had the natural disease.