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Varicella. To be [vaccinated] or not to be: that is the question!


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1368 Canadian Family PhysicianLe Médecin de famille canadienVOL 47: JULY • JUILLET 2001



ntil recently, varicella (chickenpox) was one of many prevalent infectious diseases that pri- marily affects children who inevitably suffered its unwanted health-related consequences. In early 1995, a then-new and well tested varicella vaccine (VarivaxTM, Oka/Merck®) was officially licensed for use in the United States.1 Varivax, however, remained unlicensed for use in Canada.

In May 1999, Health Canada’s Laborator y Centre for Disease Control (LCDC) held a confer- ence to establish control strategies for possible use of Varivax in Canada. At that conference, a domestic cost-benefit analysis was designed and reviewed for proposed universal and routine vari- cella vaccination throughout Canada. The final recommendation resulting from this conference was that a universal immunization program for young Canadian children should be implemented within 2 years of availability of a refrigerator-stable vaccine.2With the LCDC’s recommendation and its potential implementation, the possibility of life without chickenpox could be envisioned. Or was it too good to be true?

In January 1996, Varivax was added to the rec- ommended standard childhood immunization schedule in the United States. In 1997, a compre- hensive market survey of pediatricians in the US conducted by Merck found that only two thirds were incorporating the vaccine into the recom- mended immunization program.1 The Merck sur- vey result begs the obvious question: why did one third of pediatricians decide not to use the vaccine?

Complications of

varicella zoster virus infection

Canadian data from a variety of sources suggest that, during an acute episode of varicella, about 30% to 65% of children see a physician.2According to the LCDC, in 1999, specific complications occurred in only 5% to 10% of all varicella cases in otherwise healthy children. Furthermore, about

50% of these complications were secondary bacter- ial skin infections, such as impetigo, cellulitis, and lymphadenitis. These infections are frequently due to Staphylococcus aureus or group A β-hemolytic streptococci (GABHS). Also, otitis media occurs in up to 5% of all varicella cases. Of more serious con- cern are the potential secondary infections associ- ated with GABHS, such as bacteremia, osteomyelitis, septic arthritis, endocarditis, necro- tizing fasciitis, and toxic shocklike syndrome, which are rare but can occur nonetheless.

A population-based study3in Ontario concurred with findings from an outbreak in a day-care centre in Boston4 and indicated that varicella increases risk of severe GABHS infection among previously healthy children 40- to 60-fold.2Moreover, it is esti- mated that eliminating varicella by an effective immunization program could prevent at least 15%

of cases of GABHS in otherwise healthy children.2 From 1987 to 1996, the deaths of one to 16 peo- ple of all ages each year (total of 53) were attrib- uted to varicella; children younger than 10 years old accounted for 26% of the repor ted deaths.2 Most (90%) of the children who died presented with no identifiable risk factors.2Interestingly, in both the United States and Canada, varicella is currently the major cause of death due to diseases preventable by vaccines. Varicella in adults is associated with more severe prodromal symp- toms, including irritability; headaches; anorexia;

arthralgia; myalgia; and elevated, prolonged fever.

Lesions are more abundant and deeper with a greater risk of complications, such as pneumonia, encephalitis, and death.5

Immunocompromised children might develop progressive varicella, characterized by a more severe prodrome followed by widespread dissemi- nation of varicella zoster virus (VZV). Lesions are larger, deeper, and umbilicated or hemorrhagic.

Healing is delayed and associated with substantial morbidity and mortality.6


To be [vaccinated] or not to be: that is the question!

Maureen Sullivan-Bentz, RN, MSCA


VOL 47: JULY • JUILLET 2001Canadian Family PhysicianLe Médecin de famille canadien 1369


Vaccine-induced immunity

Since development of the varicella vaccine by a Japanese physician in the early 1970s and its sub- sequent use thereafter, clinical trials conducted in Japan suppor ted the new vaccine’s safety and immunogenicity. In 1986, the vaccine was licensed for universal use in healthy Japanese children, and shortly thereafter was used throughout Korea as well. Seroconversion was obtained at a rate of 91.5% in 8429 vaccine recipients. Only 6.9% report- ed relatively mild adverse effects, including fever, rash, or local reaction.7

Since licensure in Japan, researchers have con- tinued to monitor the vaccine’s long-term effective- ness, particularly as it relates to immunity waning over time.8The concern is that, if immunity wanes in those vaccinated, then adults who have a higher potential for complications would consequently be susceptible to acquiring the disease. In fact, a fol- low-up study of 25 people 20 years after one immu- nization found that 100% had positive antibodies as measured by fluorescent antibody-to-membrane antigen and 100% had positive cell-mediated immu- nity indicated by reactions to VZV antigen skin tests. Although the number of participants was admittedly low, it was still encouraging to find that long-term immunity was possible.9

Generally, the Oka/Merck vaccine has been safe and effective during its use in the US popula- tion since its licensure in 1996. The immune response, however, is approximately 10-fold lower than that acquired by natural infection.10

Why the concerns about using the vaccine?

Initially, immunizations were developed to prevent deaths from life-threatening diseases, such as per- tussis, rubella, and measles. Vaccinations have nearly eradicated these diseases and have, as a result, successfully saved many lives.

Some argue that implementing the varicella vac- cine immunization program was driven by cost sav- ings related to (but not exclusive to) taking time off work. Consequently, the need for a comparatively expensive intervention for a disease that is “rela- tively benign” can be questioned and debated.11 In Canada, a recently completed multicentre study estimated the financial burden of VZV on the basis of medical and societal parameters (including cost of lost productivity and personal expenses borne by caregivers). Independent cost assessments were completed on uncomplicated cases and cases that required hospitalization.

Costs were estimated to be $122.4 million or

$353 per case. Of this total, 81% was apportioned to personal expenses and productivity costs, 9%

to ambulator y medicine, and 10% to hospital- based medical care.2 Similar studies with highly comparable findings have been conducted in the United States.11

One concern with the aging of immunized chil- dren pertains to the elimination of naturally circu- lating VZV in the environment as a result of the vaccine. Without natural, circulating VZV to boost immunity, it might become necessary to revacci- nate adults. Some clinicians are concerned about compliance with immune boosting later in life.9 Interestingly, this same question was posed in the 1970s about immunizing children against measles, mumps, and rubella—all diseases that, like chick- enpox, are more serious in adults.

Based on recent data describing trends in cell- mediated immune responses to VZV in Japan, Korea, and the United States, there is no statisti- cally or clinically significant reason to believe that seroconversion for VZV will be any different from that which occur red with previous universal immunization programs.11Researchers have seen variations in strains of VZV in different geographi- cal locations and have raised the question about effectiveness of the Oka/Merck vaccine strain in the United States and Canada. At present, this issue is being investigated, and already, new vari- ant forms of the vaccine are being developed to address this concern effectively.2,12

Some health care workers and parents of young children have questioned the safety of the varicella vaccine. Well documented reactions to the varicella vaccine have been consistently described as “mild” and include injection site reac- tions (20%), non–injection site rashes (3% to 5%), and low-grade fever (15%). Serious adverse ef fects, such as pneumonia, febrile seizures, encephalitis, anaphylaxis, and death remained extremely rare. People who become infected with VZV after immunization present with significantly milder courses of illness.2

Another documented concern regarding the vaccine is its effectiveness at protecting against herpes zoster (shingles) later in life. The LCDC reports that reactivation of VZV in the form of shingles has occurred in 23 cases per 100 000 peo- ple among the adolescent and adult populations studied. The reactivation rate appears to be less frequent, however, and the disease less severe than following natural infection.2 The long-term effect of vaccination on shingles for those who are already vaccinated is yet to be determined.


1370 Canadian Family PhysicianLe Médecin de famille canadienVOL 47: JULY • JUILLET 2001


Currently, VZV vaccine is being used in a mas- sive research endeavour in the US veteran popula- tion older than 60 years and reporting a history of chickenpox in early life. The purpose of this investi- gation is to see whether a similar VZV vaccine is suc- cessful at preventing shingles in this population.13

Vaccination: just do it!

Over the past decade, epidemiologic trends in Canada reveal that, in previously healthy children, varicella-related complications are killing approxi- mately 16 children (younger than 10 years of age) per year, and approximately 1400 children per year require hospitalization for varicella-related complications.2These rates are sevenfold higher in infants and immunocompromised children.11 How many children will have to suffer the conse- quences of an apparently routine case of VZV that could have been avoided but becomes unexpect- edly worse, even to the point of death?

Extensively studied, the varicella vaccine has already been planned and programmed for imple- mentation in Canada.2 Until a refrigerator-stable vaccine becomes available, however, varicella vac- cine will not be incorporated into the recommend- ed immunization schedule in Canada, as most family practice offices cannot maintain the vaccine in the recommended frozen state.

Several key recommendations put for ward in the Canada Communicable Disease Report in 19982 have not been adopted yet because of the prob- lems of supply and storage. This results in spo- radic and limited availability of the vaccine at local pharmacies. Consequently, costs for the vaccine will be reimbursed by neither the Ontario Health Insurance Plan nor private drug plans in Canada.

Many parents are opting to purchase the vaccine and are willing to assume costs and risks associated with its administration. The potential pathophysio- logic problems inherent in “random” and “inconsis- tent administration” of the varicella vaccine, or any other vaccine for that matter, have been sufficiently described. Achieving the greatest benefits from a universal varicella vaccination program would require a comprehensive public education program dispelling “the myths” previously described and attached by some to the VZV vaccine.

It is important that further research be done on issues of duration of vaccine-induced immunity, potential interference of immune response to VZV vaccine from passively transferred antibodies, potential rare adverse events, long-term epidemio- logic impact of vaccination on varicella and herpes zoster, and coverage levels to prevent emergence of susceptible cohorts of elderly people.

Because data per taining to these issues are currently unavailable, unfounded concerns will probably be raised. It is important, however, to re- emphasize that virtually everyone in Canada will, in fact, acquire the wild VZV strain, a strain that is much more aggressive and capable of inducing more serious physiologic complications than those experienced with the milder vaccine strain.

As these more serious physiologic complications can now be safely and virtually eradicated with a universal, routine varicella vaccination program, the answer to the question of whether or not to vaccinate becomes easy: just do it!

Correspondence to: Ms Maureen Sullivan-Bentz, 96 Riley Cres, Arnprior, ON K7S 3G8

Ms Sullivan-Bentzis a lecturer in the School of Nursing at Ottawa University in Ontario.


1. Watson B, Haupt R. Varicella vaccine: removing the roadblocks. Contemp Pediatr1997;14(5):166-78.

2. Varicella-zoster virus disease and epidemiology: seeking better control strate- gies—part 1. Can Commun Dis Rep 1998;24(24):1-5.

3. Davies H, McGeer A, Schwartz B. Invasive group A streptococcal infections in Ontario, Canada. N Engl J Med 1996;(335):547-54.

4. Centers for Disease Control. Outbreak of invasive group A streptococcus associated with varicella in a childcare center in Boston, Massachusetts, 1997. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 1997;46(40):944-8.

5. Preplud S. Age specific risks of varicella complications. Pediatrics 1981;68:14-7.

6. Leung A, Kao C. The truth about chicken pox. Can J Diagnosis 1999:79-87.

7. Asano Y. Varicella vaccine: the Japanese experience. J Infect Dis 1996;174(Suppl 3):310-3.

8. Stover B, Bratcher D. Varicella-zoster virus: infection, control, and prevention. Am J Infect Control 1998;26(3):369-81.

9. Niederhauser V. Varicella: the vaccine and the public health debate. Nurse Pract1999;24(3):74-92.

10. Krah D. Assays for antibodies to varicella-zoster virus. Infect Dis Clin North Am1996;10(3):507-21.

11. Watson B, Haupt R. Varicella vaccine: removing the roadblocks. Contemp Pediatr1997;14(5):166-78.

12. Ellis R. New varicella vaccines. Infect Dis Clin North Am 1996;10(3):677-88.

13. National Institutes of Health (1999) [webpage]. Trial of varicella vaccine for the prevention of herpes zoster and its complications. Clinical research studies (99-1-0106). Available from: http://clinicalstudies.

info.nih.gov/detail/A_99-1-0106.html. Accessed April 25, 2001.


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