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Study: Chickenpox deaths are down

By Michael Davis

When Barry May was a child, having the chickenpox at one time or another was a foregone conclusion. At least it wasn't measles or mumps. But more and more, health officials say, even chickenpox is becoming a thing of the past.

"What's so ironic is that during that time, measles, mumps and chickenpox were what was going around," said May, 44. Chickenpox was the least of his childhood disease worries, but it was the one he got.

"The big thing with that was just not scratching. If you survive that week without scratching, you were good to go," the Locust Grove resident said.

Public health officials released a study Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine showing the number of deaths caused by the extremely contagious virus, varicella, have decreased dramatically since the introduction of a chickenpox vaccine in 1995.

For the years 1990 through 1994, before the vaccine was available, an average of 145 people per year died of the virus itself or complications due to chickenpox, according to the study prepared by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But in the years following the introduction of Varivax, the chickenpox vaccine, the number of chickenpox-related deaths have dropped to an average of 66 per year.

"It's really a very dramatic success story for the vaccination program," said Jane F. Seward, one of the CDC researchers.

Since the vaccine's introduction, public health departments across the state have required children entering day cares to have had the vaccine, said Clayton County Board of Health vaccination coordinator Freda Sheppard, who audits day care centers' vaccination records for that county.

Sheppard said she's seen the number of chickenpox cases drop as well. Because children are also required to have the vaccine before they enter the public school system, the number of 4- and 5-year-olds with the virus are dropping, she said. But sometimes parents wait until their children enter school-age before getting the vaccination – a risky decision.

"We didn't think too much about chickenpox – everybody had it, it wasn't a big deal," Sheppard said. "But just because we didn't know anyone that died or have anything horrible happen, doesn't mean it didn't exist."

The chickenpox virus can have several deadly side effects including viral pneumonia and infections of the brain.

In the U.S. today, 85 percent of young children get the vaccine, which researchers say has correlated in a drop to 800,000 cases of chickenpox a year from 4 million before the vaccine was available.

The study, however, indicated that the mortality rate for those 50 and old has not declined but attributed most of those deaths to shingles caused by dormant virus.

But the virus is remains a threat to adults contracting chickenpox.

"The older you get when you get a childhood disease, the greater the chance of complications," Sheppard said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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Center's for Disease Control and Prevention

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