Varicella-Zoster Strikes Again

Shingles on day 3, 6, and 11
Shingles on day 3, 6, and 11

I had chicken pox when I was 8 years old. This was before there was a vaccine for varicella zoster, the virus that causes chicken pox. When I was growing up everyone got the virus and it made you feel like crap and gave you sores all over (most people wound up with at least a few scars) and then you got better. In fact, when the vaccine was introduced in 1995 many people thought it wasn’t necessary because the disease was relatively mild. The 10,000 people hospitalized each year in the US because of complications and 100 people who died every year probably didn’t agree.

And you know what? I don’t agree either. Varicella or Herpes zoster is a tricky virus that goes latent in nerve cells, much like its cousin Herpes simplex virus. Basically this means that when you recover from your infection, some virus hides out, waiting for your immune system to get weak from stress, old age, other infections, or whatever and then it attacks again! I don’t know what triggered it in my case, but a few days ago I got shingles. Shingles is a yucky, sometimes terribly painful, outbreak of the same virus that causes chicken pox. This time I didn’t get a fever and sores all over, just a cluster of sores along one of the nerves on my back. The scary thing about this, though, is that I am infectious. I could actually give chicken pox to someone who hasn’t had a chance to be vaccinated (a newborn baby for example), a pregnant woman, or anyone who is immunocompromised for some other reason like HIV disease or because they’ve had a transplant.

I could also give chicken pox to people whose parents chose not to vaccinate them. These could be children or adults. Unfortunately, they didn’t get a chance to decide whether they wanted to get a life threatening illness because their parents thought it would be “healthier” than getting a vaccine. They also won’t get to choose when they get shingles, and will put other completely helpless populations at risk when they get infected.

Some anti-vaccine people perpetuate the myth that being infected and recovering from a natural infection provides better immunity than getting a vaccine. This is simply not true. Viruses have evolved sly ways of manipulating our immune system, and often the immunity you develop from natural infections will not protect you very well from being reinfected or from the reactivation of latent viruses.

You know, if I had been born a decade later, I would have been able to get the chicken pox vaccine and I wouldn’t have this icky rash on my back. If I were older, my doctor would have recommended the shingles vaccine for me.  Unfortunately I am stuck in the middle and got sick, but you don’t have to.  Go get the varicella vaccine, and get your children vaccinated.

Jennifer Leavey
I love to write about science, sing about science, teach about science and DO science! My favorite animal is Apis mellifera, favorite color is 440nm and favorite solvent is EtOH.