To the vast relief of parents, chickenpox - that itchy, scratchy, scabby scourge of childhood - is about to become history.
After 10 years of testing, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Friday that it has approved a vaccine that prevents most cases of chickenpox and makes the rest milder.
Instead of putting socks on toddlers’ hands so they won’t claw open those maddening little red blisters, parents will be able to take their preschoolers to the doctor for a preventive shot.
Adolescents and adults who have so far escaped chickenpox will need two injections four to eight weeks apart.
The news will come as a blessing to families who dread sharing 10 days and nights of woe, and to kindergarten teachers who fear losing half their classes to the highly contagious disease.
The vaccine will reach doctors’ offices in May, and is expected to turn chickenpox into a plague of the past, along with such afflictions as measles, mumps and polio.
According to the FDA, about 3.7 million Americans get chickenpox each year, 90 percent of them under the age of 15. Eight out of 10 children pass this miserable milestone by the time they are 10.
Though normally a wretched but harmless malady, chickenpox can make some people seriously ill. About 9,300 cases require hospitalization each year, and 50 to 100 deaths are reported. Some of the 300 to 500 blisters each patient gets can leave scars.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year estimated that chickenpox vaccinations would save about $5 for every dollar they cost, mostly in time parents lose from work to care for a sick child.
Chickenpox is caused by a virus known as varicella-zoster, a member of the herpes family. Years later, the virus can reawaken and cause painful shingles in older people.
The disease is passed by coughing, sneezing or contact with the fluid from broken blisters. It takes 10 to 21 days after exposure to develop, and a child becomes contagious 1 to 2 days before the first symptoms appear.
The new vaccine is made from a weakened form of the virus, strong enough to awaken the body’s immune system but not potent enough to make people sick.
Most of the people who got shots during the testing period suffered only minor reactions, including redness, swelling, fatigue and nausea, according to the FDA. A few developed slight cases of the disease.
“This vaccine has been studied in approximately 11,000 individuals, and we expect it to be 70 to 90 percent effective in preventing chickenpox,” FDA Commissioner David Kessler said.
“Furthermore, almost all of the vaccinated patients who got chickenpox had a milder form of the disease,” he added.
The vaccine is manufactured by Merck & Co. and will be marketed under the trade name “Varivax.” Merck will charge health-care providers $39 a dose, but most health insurance policies will cover all or part of the cost, according to the Health Insurance Association of America.
Dr. Gordon Douglas, president of Merck’s Vaccine Division, said his company has been working for 30 years to perfect a chickenpox vaccine. He estimated the development cost at “several hundred million dollars.”
If each of the 4 million babies born in a year gets a shot, Merck would receive more than $150 million in annual gross revenue.
Merck currently enjoys a U.S. monopoly on chickenpox prevention. A similar vaccine has been available in Japan since 1987, but it cannot be sold in the United States. A European version is in limited use there.
“This is good news for children, parents and society at large,” Douglas told a press conference. “It is a major milestone in the effort to eliminate all common infectious diseases of children.”
Now that the FDA has approved the vaccine, physicians may start using it as soon as they receive it from Merck and follow the instructions. It should not be used with aspirin, for example, or by pregnant women.
A recommendation whether chickenpox should be added to the standard list of compulsory childhood vaccinations will be made later this spring by the Prevention Advisory Committee of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said it will include the vaccine in its recommended schedule of immunizations.
At present, most states require that children be vaccinated for measles, mumps, rubella (German measles), diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus and polio before they enter school. Some states also require shots for hepatitis B and haemophilus b influenza.
The success rate has been remarkable.
Many states will likely add the chickenpox vaccine to the compulsory list. A recent slight rebound in the measles rate was blamed on parents who failed to get their children immunized.
xxxx Best shots A schedule for the chicken pox vaccine has yet to be decided, but it will require one dose for young children and two for anyone older than 12. Here is the recommended schedule for vaccinations that require multiple doses: Birth: Hepatitis B. 2 months: Hepatitis B; polio; diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (DTP); Haemophilus B (Hib). 4 months: Hepatitis B; polio; DTP; Hib. 6 months: Hepatitis B; polio, DTP, Hib. 12-15 months: DTP; Hib; measles, mumps, rubella (MMR). 4-6 years: polio; DTP; MMR.