Parents and children alike once viewed chicken pox as a childhood rite of passage. Some parents have hosted "chicken pox parties," where parents had their uninfected children play with infected children to make sure the kids contracted the illness before a certain age. Even "The Simpsons" aired a chicken pox party episode. So you might be surprised when your child's pediatrician recommends the chicken pox vaccine.
Here are five things you need to know about the vaccine and the disease it prevents:
Chicken pox can have serious, even fatal complications.
"While most children who contract chicken pox suffer no long-term ill effects, serious complications can result, including brain damage, systemic reactions and seizures," says Vicki Greenberg, FNP-BC, a board certified family nurse practitioner and nursing program manager at the University of Phoenix Southern California Campus. "Some of these complications can be fatal. And since no one knows who will get these severe complications, it's better to just get vaccinated."
The vaccine is safer than contracting chicken pox.
The chicken pox vaccine has been available in other countries, including South Korea and Japan, since 1988 and in the United States since about 1995. "There is a lot of available scientific evidence that the chicken pox vaccine is much safer than contracting chicken pox itself," Greenberg says. "The vaccine contains a weakened version of the live virus, and this stimulates our immune system to produce antibodies to the virus." Most people have no side effects, but some people may experience a mild fever or rash following the injection, Greenberg explains.
Vaccination provides lifelong immunity.
Contracting chicken pox once provides lifelong immunity, and so does receiving both recommended doses of the vaccine, Greenberg says. "The vaccine has existed for 25 years, and there is no scientific evidence that indicates you will lose immunity after being properly vaccinated," she says. The vaccine requires two doses for children, one at age 12-18 months and another at around age 6 to achieve full effect.
Adults who were never vaccinated and who have never had chicken pox should receive the vaccine.
Contracting chicken pox during adulthood can be especially dangerous due to a higher risk for severe complications, including pneumonia, encephalitis or nerve damage, according to Greenberg. "If you never had chicken pox as a child, or if you're unsure, get vaccinated," she says. Adults also must receive two doses of the vaccine, given six to eight weeks apart, to ensure full immunity.
Some people cannot be safely vaccinated.
Because the chicken pox vaccine contains a weakened live virus, people with immunodeficiencies and certain other medical conditions cannot be safely vaccinated because it could result in them contracting a severe case of the disease or other serious complications, Greenberg says. "People with immune-system disorders, women who are pregnant, people who are allergic to gelatin or neomycin, and people who are taking steroids and other immunosuppressive drugs should not receive the chicken pox vaccine," she says. "When in doubt, consult your health care provider."