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Chickenpox Vaccine Cuts Deaths

Universal Childhood Vaccination Sharply Lowers Chickenpox Deaths
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Feb. 2, 2005 -- Fewer people in the U.S. than ever before die of chickenpox, now that the chickenpox vaccine is part of a child's routine immunization schedule.

Chickenpox, also called varicella, is a highly contagious disease that typically strikes in childhood (but can occur at any age).

The most common symptoms are red bumps or a rash that turns into blisters. Chickenpox spreads like a cold and is most contagious from two to three days before the rash develops. Though the disease is usually mild, it can lead to serious and sometimes fatal complications such as severe pneumonia, skin infections, and brain infections. Infection during pregnancy can lead to birth defects.

In 1995, the U.S. launched the world's first universal childhood varicella vaccination program. Nearly a decade later, experts say the program has sharply cut chickenpox deaths.

Fewer Chickenpox Deaths

The report, published in The New England Journal of Medicine's Feb. 3 edition, comes from the CDC's National Immunization Program. Huong Nguyen, MPH, and colleagues analyzed years of death records citing chickenpox as the underlying or contributing cause of death.

Chickenpox killed an average of 145 people per year from 1990 to 1994, says the CDC. That number declined to an annual average of 66 deaths from 1999 through 2001.

That includes deaths for which chickenpox was listed as the underlying or contributing cause. Just looking at deaths listing chickenpox as the underlying cause, overall death rates dropped 66% over the same period.

Biggest Improvement for Kids Aged 1-4 Years

Children aged 1 to 4 years had the biggest drop -- 92% -- in chickenpox deaths. Declines were also seen in all age groups under 50. Death rates were similar for different racial and ethnic groups.

"Since the implementation of the varicella vaccination program, varicella-related deaths have declined dramatically to the lowest level ever reported," write the researchers. "Rates of mortality due to varicella in the United States are now considerably lower than the reported rates in countries that do not have a universal vaccination program."

Chickenpox can strike anytime, but it tends to be most common in the winter and spring. The CDC found that 42% of chickenpox deaths from 1990 to 2001 occurred from March through May for people younger than 50. Only 7% of deaths in that age group occurred from August through October. The seasonal trend was weaker in older age groups.

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