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Tuesday, 30 July, 2002, 23:03 GMT 00:03 UK
Chickenpox jab launched
Vaccination
The vaccine is designed for use on adults initially
The first vaccine against chickenpox is launched on Wednesday in the UK.

The manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline, says it could provide an answer to concerns over the risks of varicella (chickenpox) to adults, especially healthcare workers.

There has been a rise in the number of adult cases of chickenpox since the late 1960s.


Screening healthcare workers and offering those without natural immunity the chickenpox vaccine will cut down problems like cancelled operations

Dr Nigel Higson, Primary Care Virology Group
The highly infectious viral disease tends to be more severe if contracted after childhood.

It causes about 20 adult deaths in England and Wales each year.

Dr Nigel Higson, Chair of the Primary Care Virology Group, said the vaccine will be a "very useful tool for GPs".

He said among those that could potentially benefit from the vaccine are prospective mothers.

Chickenpox can cause miscarriage or birth defects in the unborn child.

"Women who are contemplating pregnancy should have their immunity status checked before they become pregnant if at all possible," Dr Higson told BBC News Online.

Hospital cases

The rise in adult cases of chickenpox has led to calls for healthcare workers to be vaccinated.

Hospital staff who come into contact with the virus are not allowed to work with certain patients, putting pressure on the NHS.

"Screening healthcare workers and offering those without natural immunity the chickenpox vaccine will cut down problems like cancelled operations," said Dr Higson.

The Department of Health (DoH) says it will be considering how the vaccine can be most effectively used in the NHS "in due course".

It said in a statement: "Until now chickenpox vaccine has only been available for high risk individuals such as children with leukaemia or solid organ transplants.

Chickenpox
Chickenpox is caused by the varicella zoster virus, a member of the herpes family of viruses
Symptoms include a blistering rash and mild fever, loss of appetite, headache and sore throat
The infection is spread by direct contact or inhalation

"The Department of Health welcomes the availability of a licensed chickenpox vaccine which could be used more widely, particularly in hospitals, to protect vulnerable patients from infection."

According to GlaxoSmithKline, policy recommending that non-immune healthcare workers should receive the varicella vaccine is under consideration and will be announced by the DoH.

However, the use of the chickenpox vaccine in the UK is not without its opponents.

The chickenpox vaccine is routine in the US but experts have said in the past that more work needs to be done to see if it would be beneficial to introduce the vaccine in the UK.

There is particular concern that there could be millions more cases of shingles in adults if children are mass vaccinated against chickenpox.

Shingles is a disease caused by the chickenpox virus that may flare up in later life.

Exposed

Around a quarter of people who have had chickenpox go on to suffer the condition, which manifests itself as a painful rash.

Adults are less likely to develop shingles if they have been exposed occasionally to the chickenpox virus, perhaps by their children catching it.

But Dr Higson believes that the risk of a rise in shingles cases is "purely a mathematical possibility".

The new vaccine is licensed for use in people aged 13 and over and can only be given to children in certain circumstances.

He says the biggest risk of a rise in shingles would come if 90% or more of UK children received the vaccination.

"One day it will become a routine vaccination in the childhood schedules," he said.

"I don't think that's on the cards at the moment."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Gill Higgins
"It won't be offered to everyone"
Dr John McKenna
"Chickenpox is a ridiculously mild disease"
Viral disease specialist Dr Nigel Higson:
"In some adults it is a serious disease"
See also:

01 May 02 | Health
15 Feb 02 | Health
09 Nov 01 | Health
15 Sep 01 | Health
02 Aug 01 | Health
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