British children should be routinely vaccinated against chickenpox, a leading international expert has suggested.
The chickenpox vaccine is not available routinely in the UK
Anne Gershon, professor of paediatrics at Columbia University in New York, believes the policy could help to save many lives.
Hundreds of thousands of children in Canada and the United States are vaccinated against the disease every year.
However, the Department of Health says it has no plans to introduce a mass vaccination programme in the UK.
Chickenpox is a highly contagious virus. It's effects are usually mild in children. However, it is more serious for adults and can sometimes be fatal.
The number of adult deaths from the disease has increased over the past 30 years. It causes about 20 adult deaths in England and Wales each year.
One attack gives immunity from further infection for life. However, the disease lies dormant in nerve cells and can erupt
painfully again later as shingles.
The vaccine is extremely safe and provides complete protection in 90% of cases
These later re-occurrences, usually
after the age of 50, attack nerve cells in the face, body, arms and legs.
For people with less resistance, such as elderly patients receiving cancer
treatments like radiotherapy and chemotherapy, both shingles and chickenpox can be fatal, with complications including blood poisoning and pneumonia.
Professor Gershon, who has carried out extensive research into disease, said vaccination was the best option.
"Many people mistakenly think that chickenpox and shingles, which are
caused by the same herpes virus, are relatively mild diseases so there is
no real need for a vaccine. In reality chickenpox can kill children, and
shingles is often severe in elderly patients," she said.
"The vaccine is extremely safe and provides complete protection in 90% of cases, and reduces the severity of the illness in most of the others, according to
Speaking at the Society for General Microbiology spring meeting in Edinburgh, she added: "At the moment, British children are not given routine vaccinations.
"In the USA and Canada one dose against chickenpox is given to children under 13 years old, and two doses are given to older children and adults, which appears to significantly cut down outbreaks of the disease."
However, a recent study suggested the chickenpox vaccine could actually cause an increase in the number of cases of shingles.
The research by British doctors suggested that over 50 years, vaccinating a population the size of the US would save 5,000 children from dying of the complications of chickenpox.
But they estimated there would be 21m extra cases of shingles - and 5,000 people over 60 would die from complications associated with that condition.
However, Professor Gershon dismissed those figures. Speaking to BBC News Online, she added: "Chickenpox is a much more potentially fatal disease than shingles. Fatalities form shingles are rare."
The Department of Health said there was not enough evidence to back the routine vaccination of children.
A spokesman said: "At present there is insufficient information for the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to make a recommendation for the routine immunisation of children against chickenpox, although this will be reviewed as more information becomes available."