Prior to the availability of varicella vaccine there were approximately 4 million cases of varicella a year in the U.S. Though usually a mild disease in healthy children, an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people developed complications, about 11,000 people required hospitalization and 100 people died each year from varicella. Varicella tends to be more severe in infants, adolescents and adults than in young children. The most common complications from varicella include bacterial superinfection of skin lesions, pneumonia, central nervous system involvement, and thrombocytopenia.
Ask the Experts: Varicella (Chickenpox): Disease Issues
The varicella zoster virus (VZV) spreads from person to person by direct contact or through the air by coughing or sneezing. It is highly contagious. It can also be spread through direct contact with fluid from a blister of a person infected with varicella, or from direct contact with a skin lesion from a person with zoster (shingles). People with varicella are infectious 1 to 2 days before skin lesions appear until all lesions have crusted over, usually 4 to 7 days after the appearance of skin lesions.
ACIP recommends administration of varicella zoster immune globulin (VariZIG, Saol Therapeutics) to certain people up to 10 days following exposure to varicella or herpes zoster. People for whom VariZIG is recommended are those without evidence of immunity to varicella who are at high risk of severe disease and complications of varicella illness and are ineligible for varicella vaccination. VariZIG given up to 10 days after an exposure can modify or prevent clinical varicella disease. See the varicella zoster immune globulin section below, and www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/wk/mm6228.pdf, pages 574–6, for more information on this topic.
Patients recommended by ACIP to receive VariZIG include:
- Immunocompromised patients without evidence of immunity
- Newborn infants whose mothers have signs and symptoms of varicella around the time of delivery (i.e., 5 days before to 2 days after)
- Hospitalized premature infants born at 28 weeks (or more) of gestation whose mothers do not have evidence of immunity to varicella
- Hospitalized premature infants born at less than 28 weeks of gestation or who weigh 1,000 grams or less at birth, regardless of their mothers’ evidence of immunity to varicella
- Pregnant people without evidence of immunity
If a susceptible person exposed to varicella or zoster is age 12 months or older, and has no contraindications to varicella vaccination, varicella vaccine can prevent or reduce the severity of infection when administered as post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) as soon as possible, within 5 days after exposure. There is no evidence that vaccination after infection increases the risk of vaccine-associated adverse reactions. If the patient’s exposure does not result in infection, vaccination can protect against future exposures. See the MMWR for details: www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5604a1.htm.
The minimum age for varicella vaccine is 12 months. Vaccination is not recommended for infants younger than 12 months of age even as post-exposure prophylaxis. CDC recommends that a healthy infant should receive no specific treatment or vaccination after exposure to VZV. The child can be treated with an appropriate antiviral medication if chickenpox occurs.
See the Varicella Zoster Immune Globulin section for details on the recommended use of VariZIG in immunocompromised children, infants exposed to varicella around the time of birth and some hospitalized preterm infants.