ATLANTA - Chickenpox vaccine has dramatically cut deaths from the disease, especially in children, says a new U.S. government study proclaiming an important public health victory.
Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that chickenpox deaths fell from an average of 105 per year to 14 after the vaccine had been available for a dozen years.
Deaths declined in all age groups, but the drop was most significant among children.
"To see the near elimination of chickenpox deaths in this country is very exciting," said Jane Seward, a CDC official who co-authored the paper. She has been involved in the agency's chickenpox vaccine program for 15 years.
The report was released online Monday by the journal Pediatrics.
Chickenpox is caused by a virus and is highly contagious. Symptoms include an itchy skin rash and fever. Most kids suffer no more than that, but some suffer complications like skin infections, swelling of the brain and pneumonia. Severe cases are more common among adolescents and adults who get it for the first time. Also, the virus -- called varicella -- can reactivate in people later in life and cause a painful illness called shingles.
While rarely fatal, chickenpox was very common before the vaccine -- nearly one in 10 pre-adolescent children would get it in a year, said Dr. Eugene Shapiro, a Yale University expert in infectious disease.
In 1995, the government first recommended that all children get a dose of chickenpox vaccine. One dose turned out to be about 86 per cent effective. A second dose is now recommended.
The new CDC study looked at national records for deaths attributed to chickenpox. In the five years before the vaccine, an average of 105 Americans died of the virus annually. By 2007 -- 12 years after the vaccine -- the annual death toll had dropped to 14, and almost all were adults.
The vaccine deserves credit for the decline in children's deaths, Seward said. It's also likely cut adult deaths because there are fewer infected children around to spread it to adults, she added.