Chicken pox is a now vaccine-preventable disease thanks to the chicken pox vaccine that was first licensed in 1995.
Despite being added to the childhood immunization schedule in 1996, and the addition of a booster dose in 2007, we do continue to see occasional outbreaks of chicken pox.
Although chicken pox is said to have been a rite of passage for kids, it was never something that any of us looked forward to.
At best, you had five to seven days of fever and an itchy rash that covered your body.
“My life changed forever on June 30, 1988, when I had to stand by helplessly as an infectious disease claimed the life of my oldest child, Christopher Aaron Chinnes, at the age of 12.”
Rebecca Cole on Chickenpox Claimed the Life of My Son Christopher
But of course, some people had much more severe cases of chicken pox and some people died.
Chicken Pox Outbreaks
In the pre-vaccine era, before the mid-1990s, most kids got chicken pox.
And chicken pox parties, while not as common as some folks imagine, were definitely a thing, because you didn’t want your child to become an adult and get chicken pox, when it was more dangerous. But since most kids got chicken pox so easily, most got it when they were kids, even without a chicken pox parties, and tragically, many learned that it wasn’t only dangerous to adults.
These days, most cases and outbreaks of chicken pox are in unvaccinated children and adults.
- at least 28 cases at Asheville Waldorf School in West Asheville, North Carolina (Nov 2018)
- at least 5 cases at Daybreak Primary School in Battle Ground in Clark County, Washington, leading to quarantine of at least 38 unvaccinated students who will be kept out of class for at least 21 days (Oct 2018)
- at least 5 cases at two schools in Ottawa County, Michigan, including Waukazoo Elementary and Kids First – Early Childhood Center in Jenison, leading to the quarantine of at least 34 children (Oct 2018)
- a cluster of chicken pox cases in Grant County, Washington at Park Orchard Elementary, North Elementary and Longview Elementary schools (Sept 2018)
- at least 5 cases at the The Little Red School House Too daycare in Westbrook, Maine (May 2016)
These cases are just the tip of the iceberg though, as there are still about 7,000 to 10,000 chickenpox cases reported in the United States each year. And that’s with some states, like Oregon and Washington, not reporting cases of this Nationally Notifiable Condition to the CDC.
Still, since chicken pox caused a few hundred deaths and at least 10,000 hospitalizations each year less than twenty-five years ago, that’s a lot of progress.
Getting Chicken Pox
How do you get chicken pox?
Since it is very contagious, if your child is exposed to someone with chicken pox or shingles, then they might develop chicken pox in about 10 to 21 days (incubation period).
Of course, if they vaccinated and protected, then they probably won’t, although mild, breakthrough chicken pox infections are still possible in vaccinated kids.
Their risk is higher if they:
- are unvaccinated, either intentionally, because they have a true medical exemption, or because they are too young for the vaccine, which is first given when kids are 12-months-old
- are partially vaccinated, with only one dose of the chicken pox vaccine
- have a problem with their immune system, including kids getting chemotherapy
In addition to being at risk for chicken pox, non-immune pregnant women, newborns born to women who develop chicken pox at around the time of delivery, premature babies, and those are immunocompromised can be at risk for severe disease.
Avoiding Chicken Pox
Want to avoid chicken pox and the chance of ending up in a chicken pox quarantine and having to stay out of school for 3 weeks or more?
Get your kids vaccinated.
That’s not an option for some kids with true medical exemptions though, including most kids who are immunocompromised. When they get caught up in one of these outbreaks and get exposed to chicken pox, it becomes a matter of life and death to work to try and prevent their getting chicken pox.
More on Chicken Pox Outbreaks
- CDC – Monitoring the Impact of Varicella Vaccination
- CDC – Managing People at Risk for Severe Varicella
- CDC – Strategies for the Control and Investigation of Varicella Outbreaks Manual, 2008
- Ask the Experts About Chicken Pox
- CDC – Chicken Pox Outbreaks
- WHO – Varicella
- Chickenpox Claimed the Life of My Son Christopher
- Once a Childhood Rite of Passage, Chickenpox is Vaccine Preventable
- Stroke: An underappreciated complication of chickenpox that we should never see
- Five Varicella Deaths That Could Have Been Prevented
- MMWR – Notes from the Field: Varicella-Associated Death of a Vaccinated Child with Leukemia — California, 2012
- MMWR – Varicella Death of an Unvaccinated, Previously Healthy Adolescent — Ohio, 2009
- MMWR – Epidemiology of Varicella During the 2-Dose Varicella Vaccination Program — United States, 2005–2014
- Study – Varicella Outbreak Surveillance in the United States, 2015–2016
- Study – Trends in varicella mortality in the United States: Data from vital statistics and the national surveillance system.