The benefits of a chickenpox vaccine outweigh the risks

Vaccinating children against varicella-zoster virus will almost double the cases of shingles in about 30 years time, but it will be worth it in the long term.

The itchy-scratchy misery of a chickenpox was until recently a rite of passage for children around the world. The varicella-zoster virus causes chickenpox infections. This virus persists in small numbers in nerve cells for many years after infection, and can reactivate from these cells. Often this reactivation causes no symptoms, but sometimes it results in a painful skin condition called shingles (or herpes zoster), especially in older adults.

Some countries — including the United States, Australia, Taiwan and Greece — have virtually wiped out childhood cases of chickenpox by requiring that children be vaccinated against the varicella-zoster virus. But some countries have hesitated. One reason for this hesitation is that exposure to individuals with a chickenpox infection helps boost the immunity of individuals who have previously been infected. This may help reduce the likelihood of these people developing shingles later in life. So, some countries have worried that chickenpox vaccinations might inadvertently increase the number of shingles cases. To assess this risk, many scientists have created computer models, but the models have some limitations.

Now, Benson Ogunjimi and co-workers report a new individual-based model to assess the effect of childhood varicella vaccination on shingles cases that factors in the immune responses to varicella infection. The model suggests that re-exposure to the varicella virus through contact with infected people would only provide extra protection for about two years; this is much shorter than previous predictions that suggested it might last 20 years. The model also predicts that implementing a varicella vaccination program for children would almost double the number of shingles cases 31 years later. But this increase would be temporary.

The predicted increase in shingles cases is likely to disproportionately occur among 31- to 40-year-olds. This is unexpected because most previous models predict that older age groups would bear the brunt of a rise in shingles, but this younger population would be less likely to develop lasting complications of shingles. Together, these findings may allay some fears about implementing childhood varicella vaccination programs by showing that the benefits of re-exposure are limited.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this story is based: Integrating between-host transmission and within-host immunity to analyze the impact of varicella vaccination on zoster” (August 11, 2015).

eLife is an open-access journal for outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.

This text was reused under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.