Chickenpox vaccination: what is it and does my child need it?

Baby getting chickenpox vaccination

Most parents have battled the mighty chickenpox – and most have lost. The itching, the screaming, the week off school and work – it's easy to see why uttering the word “chickenpox” can clear a playground quicker than Jaws cleared Amity Island. Although a chickenpox vaccination is available, it's not part of the childhood vaccination schedule in the UK.

Chickenpox can be extremely unpleasant. Firstly, there are the hundreds of itchy red blisters, which as parents, we forbid our kids from scratching. Then there are the flu-like symptoms, which mean our children are not only itching and crying, but constantly wiping a stream of snot from their nostrils. Thirdly, there are the financial implications – the highly contagious nature of the virus means most children, and therefore parents, have to take five to ten days off to prevent it from spreading, before they fully recover.

But a safe and effective vaccine against varicella zoster (the herpes virus that causes chickenpox) has existed since 1988, and it’s been a routine childhood vaccination in the United States since 1995.

So what is the chickenpox vaccination and why isn’t it more readily available in Britain?

What is the chickenpox vaccination?

The vaccine is a shot that can protect nearly everyone who receives it from catching chickenpox. It is made from a live, but weakened (attenuated), virus.

The vaccine stimulates your immune system to produce antibodies that help protect against chickenpox.

The vaccine is given as two separate injections, usually into the upper arm, four to eight weeks apart. It is normally administered to babies aged between 12 and 15 months.

Who should have the vaccination?

It is not part of routine childhood vaccinations in Britain – at present, it is only offered on the NHS to people who are in close contact with someone who is particularly vulnerable to chickenpox or its complications.

Currently, the chickenpox vaccine is only recommended for:

  • Non-immune healthcare workers
  • People who come into close contact with someone who has a weakened immune system

The risk of serious, life-threatening complications is greatest among infants, elderly adults, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

How effective is the chickenpox vaccine?

Nine out of 10 children vaccinated with a single dose will develop immunity against chickenpox. Two doses are recommended, as this gives an even better immune response.

The vaccination is not quite as effective after childhood. It's estimated that three-quarters of teenagers and adults who are vaccinated will become immune to chickenpox.

Why isn’t the vaccine a routine part of childhood vaccinations? Child with chickenpox

The NHS admits that it is not a routine immunisation because it fears it could increase the risk of chickenpox and shingles in older people.

Chickenpox is very unpleasant for children but the vast majority recover quickly and easily. As we age, however, the risk of complications increases.

If people were vaccinated against chickenpox, and didn’t catch it growing up, it could leave unvaccinated children susceptible to contracting chickenpox as adults.

We could also see a significant increase in cases of shingles in adults. Being exposed to chickenpox as an adult – for example, through contact with infected children – boosts your immunity to shingles.

If you vaccinate children against chickenpox, you lose this natural boosting, so immunity in adults will drop and more shingles cases will occur.

Where can I get the vaccination and how much does it cost?

The vaccination is administered for free on the NHS, where there is a clinical need. Examples of children who would probably be eligible for a chickenpox jab on the NHS include the brothers and sisters of a child with leukaemia, or a child whose parent is undergoing chemotherapy.

The vaccine is available at a number of private travel clinics, where it costs around £65.

Are there side effects?

The most common side effects are:

  • Soreness and redness at the site of the injection – this happens to around one in five children
  • A mild rash – this happens to one in 10 children.

Serious side effects of the vaccine, such as a major allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) are rare – they only occur in around one in a million vaccinated people.

Millions of doses of the vaccine have been given, and there is no evidence of any increased risk of developing a long-term health condition.

What Mumsnetters say about the vaccination:

  • “I got my daughter the chickenpox vaccine when she was four. She had no side effects whatsoever and the vaccine ‘held’ beautifully when her little brother (too young to be vaccinated) caught chickenpox a year later.”
  • “Vaccination wins hands down in our house. My daughter was vaccinated, no fuss at all. My son pre-empted me and got chicken pox at six months with hundreds of blisters – there was one on his eyeball that worried the doctor quite a lot, and some were badly infected (luckily, the scars are usually covered by clothes).”
  • “My baby is 9.5 months and it's going around his social circles at the moment. If I can avoid him getting it, that'd be great. A poorly child anytime is sad, but especially over Christmas!”