Before the vaccine, about four million people contracted the virus each year in the U.S.; more than 10,500 of those were hospitalized, and about 100 to 150 died.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia required children to receive two doses of the chickenpox vaccine before starting school; the first dose given around 12 months old, and the second between ages 4 and 6. That said, some parents may opt to vaccinate their children earlier, especially if a parent is experiencing a shingles episode.
“If the child has no immunization and is healthy, get their first shot right away,” said Dr. Anne Gershon, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease specialist and researcher at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. There is also no need to wait until age 4 for a booster dose. “Give them the second shot early,” she said. “You could give it at 18 months.”
Dr. Gershon led the U.S. clinical trials in the early 1970s that first tested the chickenpox vaccine on 575 children with underlying leukemia. Researchers braced for potential side effects, but there were none. “After those data were published, people began to be interested in vaccinating healthy children,” she said.
Consider your risk factors for getting shingles
More than 95 percent of adults in the U.S. had chickenpox before age 18, and about one in three will develop shingles in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, shingles cases in the U.S. have more than quadrupled between 1945 and 2007, even in younger adults.
“It does seem to be continuing to increase in a linear kind of way, without accelerating or decelerating, just a steady increase over time,” said Dr. Rafael Harpaz, M.D., a medical epidemiologist with the C.D.C.’s Division of Viral Diseases. The cause of the increase isn’t clear, but Dr. Harpaz noted that shingles is more prevalent in older adults and estimated that cases will likely continue to increase 2.5 percent per year for all ages, especially if they have a chronic illness that leads to a weakened immune system or a family history of shingles.
Dr. Harpaz said that while adults under 50 are getting shingles at a higher rate than previously reported, studying and tracking it is challenging because those who have milder symptoms might mistake them as symptoms of another ailment. Younger patients may never seek a shingles diagnosis or treatment, or (as in my case) not realize they are exposing their own child to the virus that causes it.