Chickenpox is often written off as a benign childhood disease to be endured with loads of calamine lotion. Just look at the number of chickenpox party groups on Facebook, even organized by regions. The thinking goes that instead of vaccinating kids against chickenpox, why not directly expose them to the germs of an infected child to build their immunity while they're young?
The problem is, chickenpox, which is caused by the highly contagious varicella zoster virus, can actually cause serious complications. A recent report in the Journal of Pediatrics revealed that a previously healthy 11-month-old boy suffered a chickepox-related stroke.
The mom noticed her baby's right arm and leg seemed weak when she woke him from his afternoon nap. At urgent care, the doctor confirmed weakness on the right side of the baby's face and limbs, and a lack of right-sided support when in a sitting position.
After transferring the baby to a regional care center, and getting him a head MRI and MRA, doctors diagnosed a stroke. Apparently, he and his older siblings had chickenpox two to three months before. The baby was too young to get the varicella vaccine, as it is recommended for kids between the ages of 12 months and 15 months, and again between the ages of 4 to 6. News reports, like that from Today, say the baby's older siblings weren't vaccinated either.
Typically, there's a time gap between chickenpox and when the stroke hits. Research cited in the report shows there's a higher risk of stroke in children in the first six months after chickenpox.
"Basically, the chickenpox virus infects the large blood vessels in the brain and causes inflammation in them," Dr. Tina Tan, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, told Today. "The blood vessels can scar and that can decrease blood supply to the brain, which can lead to stroke."
Chickenpox can also cause complications like meningitis, convulsions, encephalitis, septic shock, flesh-eating bacteria and pneumonia.
Another mom, Renay Newman, is hoping more parents have their children vaccinated after her 9-year-old boy died from contracting chickenpox and developing pneumonia. She and her family were not aware that a chickenpox vaccine was available.
Before the varicella vaccine was made available more than 20 years ago, about 100 to 150 kids in the U.S. died of chickenpox every year and about 11,000 children were hospitalized annually. Since then, hospitalizations related to the infection dropped by 75 percent within six years. The vaccine has helped drastically reduce instances of chickenpox, making kids 80 to 94 percent protected after the first vaccine dose and 98 percent protected after the second dose. And, if vaccinated kids do get sick, the symptoms are usually very mild.
Though the baby's case and Newman's stories are tragic, they're also a good reminder of how important it is to get children vaccinated—and, at the very least, to decline that chickenpox party invitation.