For the last week and a half I’ve had spots before my eyes – the dreaded chickenpox.
On this occasion there were no spots on me – I had that pleasure as a teenager – but on my two-year-old son. I was quickly reminded how unpleasant it can be, even when it doesn’t develop into the more serious complications experienced by some sufferers.
The fever and the headaches are bad enough, and that’s even before we get onto the spots themselves, which don’t only look nasty but cause itching and soreness as you wait desperately for them to scab over.
Watching a small child wince and scratch and struggle to sleep reminded me that in some countries, this is not happening. A vaccine against chickenpox has been used for many years in countries including the US, Germany and Japan.
But in the UK we choose not to vaccinate all children. Only those who pose a higher risk – such as those who might come into contact with someone with a compromised immune system – receive vaccination.
The reasons against universal vaccination include concerns it would increase complications in older people who were not vaccinated against chickenpox as children and who could face a higher chance of getting it later on.
Experts also suggest that cases of shingles – a reactivation of the virus – could increase in older people who do not receive a natural booster by being exposed to young people with chickenpox.
These explanations sound plausible in theory, but they don’t seem to have caused those countries who have long offered the vaccination to abandon their programmes.
I believe there are other reasons chickenpox vaccination is not included in our childhood immunisation programme.
One of them must be the cost. We already vaccinate children against life-threatening infections including meningitis, measles and whooping cough. We’re even starting to vaccinate them against flu, which like chickenpox is also often described as a mild illness for most.
Can we afford to add another vaccine? But place against that the cost of lost productivity of parents who have to stay at home to look after sick children. Do the rums really add up?
But I fear the biggest hurdle standing in the way is how a minority of parents feel about vaccinations following now-discredited research linking the MMR jab to autism. Would they accept another jab being added?
Why not just give us the choice to stop our children suffering what may usually be a mild illness but which for some can be a lot more serious?