A clarification on chicken pox vaccine

October 07, 1997

Last month, an Ann Landers column included a letter suggesting that vaccinating children against chicken pox would protect them against shingles as adults. Specialists at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, where research studies are under way for patients with shingles now or in the past (call 410-955-4053 for details), suggest otherwise.

This clarification is from Hopkins shingles expert Dr. Anne Louis Oaklander of the Department of Neurosurgery:

Childhood immunization is not expected to protect adults against the sequel to chicken pox called shingles or zoster. Here's why: Exposure to chicken pox (or the vaccine) creates long-lasting immunity against the virus, which hides for life in cells near the spine. A healthy immune system suppresses the chicken pox (VZV) virus, but if immunity weakens, it can reactivate and spread along nerves to the skin, causing shingles.

About 850,000 new cases of shingles occur in the U.S. each year, often in the ill or elderly. Victims develop pain on one side of the face or body, followed by painful blisters and sores. The pain usually leaves after the rash heals. In some, the pain (postherpetic neuralgia) may persist for years, causing anguish and disability, and requiring complex medical care.

Medications can lessen the severity of shingles and its aftermath, so sufferers should see a doctor immediately.

The first children who received the chicken pox vaccine are still in grade school, but scientists expect that their immunity to VZV also will wear off in adulthood.

However, they are investigating whether immunizing adults may boost their immunity against shingles. The day may come when the chicken pox vaccine is also administered to adults to prevent shingles.

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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