David Miller

Obsessed as we are by Covid, there may be object lessons for us from a much older human virus: Chickenpox.

So, who cares? Kids don’t seem to catch it anymore. That’s because a Japanese scientist developed a safe and effective vaccine in 1986. By 1995 it had come into widespread use, and, as a result, chickenpox has pretty well disappeared from the community.

Before that, nearly every kid caught chickenpox. During the mid-twentieth century, it was a common custom for parents to hold ‘pox parties’ as a way of getting it over and done in childhood because everybody knew that adult chickenpox was a much more severe disease. 

For most kids, while it was horrible to be covered by pox sores, most got over it within a week or ten days. 

From almost 70 years ago, I can still remember the fiery pain and my pox-ugly face looking back from the mirror. The final pockmark left a lasting scar, still visible on my forehead. 

Strange but true, the chickenpox virus can lie dormant for many decades in people who were infected but never vaccinated. That would mostly be the boomers. Then, it can erupt in a horrible way in those later years. So let’s name and shame. 

Virus Hide

The Varicella Virus can hide in the human body for over half a century and then be responsible for the awful rash of shingles (herpes zoster). It can erupt following physical or mental stress or in an immune-compromised person. 

The virus sleeps in a nerve ganglion, like an egg of the mythical dragon, unmoving all those years. If it’s lodging in a spinal nerve, upon awakening, it sparks down the nerve like a gunpowder fuse, and within day it explodes onto skin as a painful rash. 

This presents on one side of the chest wall along the line of the intercostal nerve. If it’s dormant in the head, it’s located in the trigeminal nerve. From there, the rash follows that nerve branch into the scalp and eye region, leading to the possibility of blindness, even brain damage. 

The pain, that can persist after the rash has gone, is called post-herpetic neuralgia. Complete recovery can be problematic. 

Why am I telling this horror story? There are a few reasons. 

It’s Preventable 

The first is that Shingles is entirely preventable in older folk. A single dose of shingles vaccine will find and destroy the dragon’s egg. 

Zostavax is the same as chickenpox vaccine, given as a single shot but in a different dose than kids. For anyone over 70, it is free of charge. 

After decades in medical practice, I do recall that shingles can exhibit in people much younger than age 70. The age restriction is hard to fathom. Every case is one too many. 

Secondly, a new vaccine called Shingrix has been approved for younger people, but it is user-pay at $250-350 per dose. Two shots are required. 

Thirdly, there seems to be a low level of community awareness about the dangers of shingles and many people are caught unawares or not diagnosed in time for treatment. If you think you might be a candidate, it might be wise to ask your doctor. As usual, prevention is better than cure. 

Last but not least, the varicella virus showcases the long virus effect. We are still in the infancy of Covid disease, but we are hearing of many ‘long haul’ cases. Could it bounce back on unvaccinated victims in 50 years in some strange as yet unimagined form? The future is unwritten. 

Get Vaccine, Have No Pox

The good news is that the varicella vaccine in kids prevents chickenpox disease. What’s more, the Varicella dragon cannot lay its egg in a vaccinated child. 

In the years ahead, Shingles may be a thing of the past, but for now, it might pay to be aware of the possibility of the uninvited lodger. 

David Miller is a retired GP who writes on Health and Travel.

Nothing in this article should be construed as medical advice. It is story and metaphor only and does not claim to be accurate. Advice about health should be sought from your doctor or appropriate authority. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.