Chicken pox confirmed
NORTH ADAMS -- Despite the common perception that chicken pox has been eradicated by a childhood vaccine, over a dozen cases of the virus have been confirmed by local pediatricians' offices this week.
However, local parents might have a hard time recognizing the childhood illness, which is traditionally identified by high fevers and itchy red blisters that would crop up by the hundreds on a child's skin.
"We've seen some mild cases," Dr. Marc McDermott, a pediatrician with Northern Berkshire Pediatrics, said on Wednesday. "What we're seeing in children who have had the varicella vaccination is what looks like a rash -- from a few red raised bumps to a few dozen bumps. Children aren't getting the red itchy blisters that were the hallmark of the illness. Twenty years ago, you would know a child had the chickenpox because he would have a 102-degree fever and break out in hundreds of blisters."
While local pediatricians wouldn't call the local cases a cause for concern, outbreaks of the illness, which can cause major complications, were most recently reported in vaccinated children in San Diego County schools and at the University of Wisconsin -- LaCosse campus. Internationally, outbreaks of epidemic proportions have been reported in Uganda, India and Vietnam, where thousands of unvaccinated children and adults are reportedly suffering from respiratory complications caused by the virus.
"People often assume that children are immune once they are vaccinated," McDermott said. "No vaccine is perfect. The varicella vaccine is very good at preventing the life-threatening complications that affected 1 in 1,000 people who contracted it."
The vaccine, introduced in 1995, helps to prevent complications such as brain infections, respiratory and lung-infections, skin infections from bacteria getting into open sores and Reye's syndrome, a severe liver condition that would often afflict children who were given aspirin to reduce a fever.
"What we see now are cases that we call breakthrough varicella because the virus breaks through the built up immunity," he said. "It's often hard to say a case is definitely chicken pox these days, unless we see a hallmark blister. If we have a case that has a low-grade fever, the red rash and the child feels poorly, we consider it to be chicken pox."
While tests can confirm if a case is truly chicken pox, they are costly and take a few days for the results to return.
"We're pretty confident when we give out a diagnosis," McDermott said.
In 2006, outbreaks of the varicella virus were reported throughout the country, with over 35 local children between the ages of 9 and 13 years old contracting mild cases of the chicken pox.
"Because vaccines are not perfect, we have found that a booster shot is required," McDermott said.
Typically, the first vaccination is given at a year-old, while a booster shot is provided at five years old as children prepare to enter kindergarten. However, the booster shot was not implemented until about two years ago.
"In older children, who have not had the booster shot, we usually recommend it around the age of 11," he said.
Pediatricians recommend that children remain home from school until after a fever has been gone for 24 hours, blisters are crusted over, the rash-like bumps have begun to fade and no new lesions, bumps or blisters have cropped up.
"Parents should be bringing their children in for us to take a look at if they don't know what is causing a skin irritation, especially if it's itchy," McDermott said. "Parents know when a rash is poison ivy or bug bites. We trust their judgment."
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