Kids under 11 offered free chickenpox vaccine, but older Kiwis miss out

A vaccine for chickenpox, or varicella, will be added to the immunisation schedule from July 1.
SEAN GALLUP/GETTY IMAGES

A vaccine for chickenpox, or varicella, will be added to the immunisation schedule from July 1.

Free chickenpox vaccines for children and babies will be offered from next month, but there are no plans to extend the jabs to the rest of the population.

The free vaccine will become part of the immunisation schedule for 15-month-olds on July 1.

All children turning 11 years of age on or after that date, who have not yet had chickenpox or been immunised, will also be entitled to a free dose.

Older children or those who don't meet the criteria will need to purchase the vaccine if they want it. One dose costs about $80.

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Pharmac director of operations Sarah Fitt said the free vaccine would benefit more than 100,000 people and had been introduced as part of new clinical evidence which showed the benefits of being immunised against chickenpox, which is also known as varicella.

Previous research had shown the vaccine carried some risks that might have outweighed the benefits of a universal vaccine, Fitt said. 

Theoretical risks included the increased possibility of getting shingles later in life if exposed to the chickenpox virus.

That research had since been reviewed by Pharmac's clinical advisors, who now recommend universal vaccination.

Chickenpox can lead to serious complications, such as pneumonia, problems with the kidneys, heart, joints or nervous system.

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Symptoms include tiredness, fever, aches and pains and the tell-tale rash of small popping blisters all over the body.

Chickenpox is very contagious and can be spread through the air and through an infected person touching blisters and then touching objects or people.

The Ministry of Health warned against the once-common chickenpox parties, which are still occasionally held as a way to boost a child's immunity and expose them to the illness early on. 

Dr Pat Tuohy said the risks of catching chickenpox, even as a child, were greater than the risks of getting vaccinated.

"Chickenpox parties are needlessly dangerous when there is a safe and effective vaccine available."

Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, the director of research at the Immunisation Advisory Centre, said the pox parties may have made sense historically.

However, now that there was a vaccine, they were "reckless" and putting children at risk.

She said historical concerns that exposure to a chickenpox vaccine could lead to a shingles infection later in life weren't backed up by evidence.

The vaccine had been proven quite safe and had been commonly used in many countries for some time, she said.

Teenagers and adults who have never had chickenpox or been vaccinated against it are recommended, but not funded, to have two doses of chickenpox vaccine, because they are at greater risk of complications if they catch the disease.

Pregnant women and their unborn babies are at particular risk of harm from chickenpox, but chickenpox immunisation during pregnancy is not recommended.

Those who grew up in tropical countries are less likely to have had chickenpox as children. 

 - Stuff

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