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Chicken Pox Vaccine 'Saves Lives,' Experts Say

Update Date: Mar 13, 2013 01:00 PM EDT

Chicken pox may have seemed like a harmless childhood illness when you were young. Once one person in your second grade class developed the sickness, soon everyone was home for a week scratching their skin. However, thanks to vaccination efforts, chicken pox has largely become an event of the past. That is for the best, Australian researchers say: even despite the rising swell of vaccination ambivalence, vaccinating against the childhood disease is saving lives.

In the past, Australia had an estimated 240,000 chicken pox cases each year. Within that number, 1,500 cases were deemed so severe that the infected people were hospitalized; between one and 16 people died every year from the disease.

Those numbers have shifted drastically, thanks to the introduction to Australia of a chicken pox vaccine in 2006. Since the introduction of the varicella vaccine, the number of children hospitalized with shingles and chicken pox has dropped by a staggering 68 percent. Between 2007 and 2010, there were no deaths from the disease - and most of the children who were hospitalized with chicken pox or shingles had not been vaccinated. Indeed, 80 percent of the children hospitalized with these illnesses had not been vaccinated, indicating that the vaccine is highly effective.

"These results are a very strong endorsement of the impact of chicken pox vaccine being available for children through the national childhood imunization program, and of the need to immunize all children against chicken pox," lead author Helen Marshall, an Associate Professor at the University of Adelaide's Robinson Institute and the Director of the Vaccinology and Immunology Research Trials Unit at the Women's and Children's Hospital, Adelaide, said in a statement.

Chicken pox is highly contagious, transmitted either through the air or through direct contact with the skin lesions that give the disease its name. In severe cases, the disease can lead to very troubling complications, like neurological problems and even death.

"At least one dose of varicella vaccine in eligible children and in other members of their household has the potential to prevent almost all severe cases of chicken pox in Australia," Marshall went on to say. "Not only does this have the potential to save lives, it also saves millions of dollars in hospital admission costs each year."

The study was published in the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal.

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