Chickenpox ar­rives at the Pan Am Games

Some facts about a mis­er­able ail­ment


A mem­ber of Mexico’s fe­male soc­cer team at the Pan Am Games has been di­ag­nosed with chickenpox, Games of­fi­cials have con­firmed.

Here are some facts about chickenpox, a mis­er­able ail­ment ren­dered fairly rare since the ad­vent of an ef­fec­tive vac­cine:

That’s not its real name

We call it chickenpox. But this dis­ease, which was once a part of most child­hoods, is ac­tu­ally caused by the vari­cella-zoster virus.

These days, cases of chickenpox are less com­mon as a re­sult of the in­tro­duc­tion of the vari­cella vac­cine. The vac­cine, ad­min­is­tered on its own or com­bined with the vac­cines for measles, mumps and rubella, is given in two doses in child­hood.

It’s one of the more ef­fec­tive vac­cines. The U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion says about 80 per cent of vac­ci­nated peo­ple are fully pro­tected. About 15 to 20 per cent could still con­tract chickenpox, but will have a milder course of dis­ease and will re­cover more quickly.

It’s itchy and it scars

You’d be hard pressed to find an adult over the age of 20 or so who doesn’t have a chickenpox scar some­where on their body. (The first vari­cella vac­cine was in­tro­duced in Canada in 1998.)

The dis­ease causes a blis­ter­like red rash that is very itchy. “Don’t scratch!” was al­ways the mantra in house­holds with

chickenpox cases, be­cause scratch­ing picks off the scab on the blis­ter and that’s what causes scar­ring. It’s not just un­com­fort­able.

It can also kill

Be­fore the vac­cine was in­tro­duced, most peo­ple caught chickenpox in child­hood. It’s one of the most con­ta­gious of the so­called child­hood dis­eases, so if chickenpox hit a house­hold or a neigh­bour­hood, a lot of kids got sick.

In fact, some par­ents would throw “chickenpox par­ties” - as­sum­ing since their chil­dren would even­tu­ally get the dis­ease, they might as well get it over with. (Public health of­fi­cials dis­cour­age chickenpox par­ties; they would pre­fer par­ents vac­ci­nate chil­dren.)

Most peo­ple who con­tract chickenpox feel aw­ful for a few days but then get bet­ter. But chickenpox can lead to skin in­fec­tions and pneu­mo­nia. It can also cause necro­tiz­ing fasci­itis - flesh-eat­ing dis­ease - in rare case, as well as stroke and en­cephali­tis (swelling of the brain).

Chickenpox com­pli­ca­tions are more com­mon in chil­dren and adults with com­pro­mised im­mune sys­tems. Chickenpox is risky for preg­nant women, both for them and in some cases for the fe­tuses they carry.

The risk of death from chickenpox rises with age. In the pre­vac­ci­na­tion era in Canada, adults had the high­est death rate - 30 deaths per 100,000 cases, ac­cord­ing to the Public Health Agency of Canada. But the dis­ease is also hard on in­fants, a

group which had a death rate of seven per 100,000 in­fec­tions.

It’s re­ally in­fec­tious

The chickenpox virus spreads in the air through cough­ing or sneez­ing, says the CDC.

It can also spread if a vul­ner­a­ble per­son touches or breathes in the virus par­ti­cles that come from chickenpox blis­ters. A per­son who hasn’t had chickenpox and hasn’t been vac­ci­nated can also catch the virus through con­tact with some­one who has shin­gles. (More on shin­gles next.)

One of the things that makes chickenpox a ter­rific spreader is that peo­ple who are in­fected can trans­mit to oth­ers for a day or two be­fore they even know they are sick. Once some­one sick takes to their bed they have fewer chances of in­fect­ing oth­ers. But the virus can move around in that day or two be­fore symp­toms set in.


The vari­cella-zoster virus has a nasty trick. It re­mains dor­mant in the body of any­one who has had chickenpox, and can flare up later in life.

When the virus re­ac­ti­vates, it causes shin­gles - a painful skin rash. The CDC es­ti­mates about one in three peo­ple who have had chickenpox will have shinges.

It’s not known what trig­gers the re­ac­ti­va­tion, though the risk seems to rise with age. More than half of cases oc­cur in peo­ple 60 years of age and older.

There is an adult vac­cine that sig­nif­i­cantly re­duces the risk of de­vel­op­ing shin­gles.

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