For most adults, it was a rite of childhood. The well-known symptoms of chickenpox are red, itchy pock marks all over the body, sometimes accompanied by a fever and always accompanied by a week off school.
Before Canada-wide vaccinations against chickenpox were adopted in 2007, 90 per cent of children contracted the disease before the age of 12.
Now, the disease is rare. But a recent outbreak in St. John’s has some parents questioning the vaccination practice. The spots on Rhona Buchan’s twin two-year-old sons, Sam and Ian, showed up last
“I heard through the grapevine that chickenpox was on the go in town, so I looked it up,” she says. “But what I saw on their arms didn’t compare to the pictures, and I dismissed it. Then I heard that another child in their pre-school class had a confirmed case and I looked again. By then, the bumps had evolved and it was chickenpox.”
Though chickenpox is usually mild, and more of an inconvenience than a threat, complications can occur. Children with compromised immune systems can develop bacterial infections in the vesicles, and shingles can show up later in life. Pregnant women who become infected can pass it on to their fetus, and that can result in birth defects.
As well, chickenpox can be dangerous for adults: according to the Canadian Pediatric Society, adults have a greater chance of complications such as pneumonia or high fevers.
In Buchan’s case, her children were exposed to someone with a weakened immune system, and she was quite concerned.
Buchan’s sons had been vaccinated at 12 months, the standard age in Newfoundland.
Documents published by the Public Health Agency of Canada say three to four per cent of vaccinated kids are expected to contract chickenpox each year.
“My sons are in a class of 12 kids,” she says. “Four of them came down with chickenpox last week, so that’s over 30 per cent.”
According to a 2011 study by the Canadian Pediatrics Society, immunity can wane after one dose of the chickenpox vaccine .
The study also states, with a one-dose program, people are contracting the disease later in life, when it can be risky.
As of September 2011, the society recommends a booster shot be given between ages four and six. This has been the practice in the U.S., and is now standard practice in at least two other Canadian provinces.
The Telegram repeatedly requested an interview with Dr. Faith Stratton, chief medical officer of health for Newfoundland and Labrador, to inquire about the province’s one-dose vaccination program, but the request was not granted by the Department of Health and Community Services.
Instead, a department communications spokesman issued a statement indicating the vaccine is publicly funded, and there has been a reduction in the number of cases of chickenpox reported, which the department monitors.
“A second booster dose of the chickenpox vaccine, along with other new enhanced vaccination programs, will continue to be considered for Newfoundland and Labrador,” the statement concluded.
For Buchan’s sons, the vaccine did seem to help the course of the infection.
“It was very mild,” she said. “They didn’t even get a fever.”
“But I don’t really know what to think of this vaccine,” she added. “It seems almost better to do without it, and just let the kids have it and move on.”