A couple days ago I saw a post on Facebook expressing anger over how the chicken pox vaccine had caused a rise in shingles, and the request for anyone who’s child had chicken pox to let the poster know so she could bring her child over to get infected. Does this make sense? Let’s unpack it.
What is shingles?
Shingles or Herpes Zoster is a painful rash caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. The varicella-zoster virus (VZV) is a herpes virus. One of the characteristics of herpes viruses is that after the initial infection the virus lies latent in the body. Sometimes it reactivates. The reactivation of VZV can cause shingles. In order to get shingles you have to be infected with VZV.
Is there an increase in shingles due to the chicken pox vaccine?
Maybe. Studies on this are inconclusive. The vaccine was introduced in 1995. It may be too soon to tell. However, an increase in shingles after the introduction of the varicella vaccine had been predicted. This was hypothesized based on the idea that an effective vaccine program would eliminate much of the wild-type VZV circulating. It is thought that the “boost” people who had previously had chicken pox received from contact with the circulating virus kept their immune systems primed for a reactivation event. If the latent virus were to reactivate in their body, their immune system would be able to fight it off before any symptoms of shingles manifested. Based on this hypothesis a shingles vaccine was developed to be given to people over 60, who are at the most risk for shingles.
Can you get shingles from the chicken pox vaccine?
Yes, you can. The varicella vaccine is a live attenuated virus, which means that it is a virus that has altered to make it less virulent. It does remain in your body as the wild-type virus does, and it can reactivate and cause shingles. Current research shows that it reactivates less often than the wild type virus does and causes a milder shingles outbreak, with less chance of complications. Of course this research only covers the two decades since the vaccine was introduced. It is currently impossible to know about effects in future.
In light of all of this, does purposefully infecting your child with chicken pox make sense?
Not if what you are trying to avoid in shingles. Current research shows that you are more likely to develop shingles, and the case is likely to be more severe, after naturally catching chicken pox than you are from the vaccine. The only way to make sure you don’t get shingles is to make sure you never encounter the either the wild-type or the vaccine virus.
image from Microsoft Office Clip art