Chickenpox is a highly contagious disease caused by the varicella zoster virus which causes itchy rashes, which are sometimes compared to a “dewdrop on a rose petal”.
Until the development of a chickenpox vaccine in the late 20th century, the disease was a common childhood disease that could cause serious health problems in people who only contracted the disease at old age. adult. More than four million people contract chickenpox each year in the United States, resulting in more than 10,000 hospitalizations and 100 deaths. Since the start of vaccinations, these numbers have dropped dramatically.
The CDC reports that fewer than 350,000 people contract the disease per year and that there are fewer than 1,700 hospitalizations and 20 deaths per year from chickenpox.
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Where does chickenpox come from?
There is evidence of chickenpox dating back to ancient times, and the first known use of the term “chickenpox” dates back to 1691, although it is not known how it got this name. The disease is believed to have been introduced to the Americas in the 15th century by European explorers and settlers. Once on the mainland, it (and other diseases) spread among Native Americans since indigenous peoples had not been exposed to the virus.
Prior to the 18th century, diseases that seemed to produce “pox,” or rashes, were generally grouped together. This included chickenpox, smallpox and syphilis, known as “large pox” or “large pox”. The first scientist to provide a detailed description of chickenpox that differentiates it from smallpox was the English physician William Heberden. In 1767 he noted the physical differences between the two diseases and also noted that people who had had chickenpox “were not able to have it again.”
It wasn’t until later that scientists realized that chickenpox was linked to shingles. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Hungarian pediatrician James von Bokay observed several cases in which young people appeared to contract chickenpox after being exposed to someone with shingles, a disease that can cause nerve damage if it is not being treated properly. This led him to suggest that there was a link between the two diseases.
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The chickenpox virus is identified in the 1950s
Scientists then confirmed this theory by finding that after a person recovered from chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus stays in their body and can lead to the development of shingles later on.
In the 1950s, scientists first isolated the varicella-zoster virus, paving the way for chickenpox and shingles vaccination efforts. After that, it took several decades to develop and distribute vaccines against these diseases. The United States Food and Drug Administration approved the first chickenpox vaccine in 1995 and the first shingles vaccine in 2006.
Compared to other childhood vaccines, the chickenpox vaccine was a relatively late development. Maurice Hilleman, who helped develop a measles vaccine in the 1960s, also tried to lobby for a chickenpox vaccine around this time. However, the diseases ended up being given a higher priority based on their associated death and disability rates, writes epidemiologist René Najera, editor-in-chief of The history of vaccines, an online resource from the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, in an email to HISTORY.
“As a result, chickenpox has fallen to the bottom of the list because it is a relatively mild disease in children,” he says. While new vaccines helped control more serious childhood illnesses, chickenpox rose higher on the list.
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Contagiousness of chickenpox
Chickenpox is extremely contagious. The CDC estimates that a person with chickenpox can pass it to up to 90% of people they come into contact with who have never had chickenpox or the vaccine. In addition, the period during which a person is contagious lasts for several days. It begins a day or two before the chickenpox rashes start to appear and lasts until all of the fluid-filled skin lesions are gone. Typically, chickenpox lasts 4-7 days.
Before the vaccine, chickenpox spread easily in households and classrooms, and was especially dangerous for adults who had never had it. Children and adults can experience fever, fatigue, and body aches with chickenpox, but in adults these symptoms can be more severe. Adults are 25 percent more likely than children to die from chickenpox, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. The disease can lead to health complications such as bacterial infections, swelling of the brain, and pneumonia.
Although the chickenpox vaccine has significantly slowed the spread of the disease in schools, outbreaks have occurred in parts of the United States where parents have been reluctant to vaccinate their children. This is similar to how childhood illnesses like measles, which rose from common to uncommon at the end of the 20th century, began to show up again in schools in the 21st century.
Yet with the widespread adoption of the chickenpox vaccine, the disease “has joined polio and measles in the list of infectious diseases candidates for eradication,” Najera said. So far, the only human disease that vaccines have eradicated in the world is smallpox, but scientists and doctors one day hope to add more to the list of diseases that have been conquered by vaccines.
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