Chickenpox Outbreak in Indiana: Varicella Infections on the Rise

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The red indicates the location of where the outbreak is occurring. Photo by: Sean Baker

The city of Terre Haute, Indiana is experiencing the largest current outbreak of chicken pox in the United States, according to local officials.

Normally, they have fewer than 10 cases a year; however, this time they have had more than 80 cases since September.

Since 1995 (when the vaccine was developed) the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have recommended that everyone get vaccinated against chickenpox – this disease can cause more than itchy red bumps, which is why an outbreak is a concern.

Indiana Outbreak Investigation

Dr. Joan Duwve, chief medical officer with the Indiana State Department of Health reported to the Tribune-Star that the original source of the chickenpox outbreak was from an unvaccinated student that could have introduced the virus to others.

Dr. Duwve is asking healthcare professionals to test patients who may have chickenpox and then report confirmed cases to the state’s health department – he is also recommending that healthcare professionals give a second dose of the varicella vaccine to preschool children who have been affected by the outbreak.

Healthcare providers should wait 28 days between the two doses and if the child has received any live vaccines like the MMR or the flu mist.

According to the CDC, the varicella vaccine is normally given between 12 and 15 months and then a second dose between the ages of four and six.

Dangers of Chickenpox

Severe cases of chickenpox can result in hospitalization and death.

In the 1990’s chickenpox was a very common illness, with about four million people getting chickenpox each year with 13,000 hospitalized and 150 people dying each year from chickenpox. Complications resulting from chickenpox include:

  • Blood stream infections
  • Swelling and/or infection of the brain
  • Pneumonia
  • Bone and joint infections
  • Bleeding problems
  • Toxic shock syndrome

People who are at high risk for developing complications include infants, pregnant women, and adults with a compromised immune system (those with HIV/AIDS, going through chemotherapy, or organ transplant).

Chickenpox blister. Photo by: Zeimusu

Preventing Varicella

Before the chickenpox vaccine was developed in 1995 some people exposed their healthy children to children who had chickenpox so that they would get infected. The reasoning behind this was because if you didn’t get chickenpox as a child, you could get shingles as an adult, and potentially get even sicker. Today, these “pox parties” as they are called still take place, with parents sharing lollipops and other infected materials to expose kids via Facebook and other social media.

However, there is a safer way to protect against chickenpox and that is through the varicella vaccine. The vaccine consists of either one or two doses depending on if you have had chickenpox before. The CDC recommends that everyone get vaccinated with two doses; two-dose vaccination is 98 percent effective at preventing chickenpox.

Chickenpox Outbreak Why Now?

No one is for sure why there is such a large outbreak of chickenpox. It could be because of better surveillance, which means better means of identifying, tracking, and reporting of the illness. In the past there may have been large outbreaks like this, but it just wasn’t reported. The chickenpox vaccine is not guaranteed to prevent all cases, of course, but does prevent how severe the cases can become, according to the CDC.

Chickenpox: It Can Get Complicated

Chickenpox is a highly contagious disease that can result in severe complications, even death. The only way to prevent these severe cases and most cases of chickenpox is either living in a bubble to avoid infected people, or through the varicella vaccine. If you are unsure whether you have had chickenpox, blood work can be done to verify immunity, so check with your doctor.

Resources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chickenpox. (2011). Accessed November 26, 2012.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chickenpox Complications. (2011). Accessed November 26, 2012.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Varicella Vaccine Composition, Dosage, and Administration. (2012). Accessed November 26, 2012.

Tribune-Star. Vigo has largest active chickenpox outbreak. (2012). Accessed November 26, 2012.

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