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Chickenpox jab may be added to MMR

Children and pregnant women could be routinely vaccinated against chickenpox under a review of immunisation policy

Children and pregnant women could be routinely vaccinated against chickenpox under a review of immunisation policy.

The government's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is considering adding the new chickenpox vaccine to the MMR triple injection already administered to children.

It is believed that the move will cost £30 per patient.

Critics regard the proposal as over-zealous because there are few deaths resulting from chickenpox each year, and these are mainly among people with already weakened immune systems.

Child health specialists say mass vaccination is the best defence against chickenpox, which claims up to 50 lives a year, 40 of them children. 

However, critics fear the vaccination will overload the immune systems of infants, who are already given 25 vaccines in 10 shots by the age of 13 months.

The committee is also looking at vaccinating adults against shingles, which is caused by the same virus and is a more serious condition, particularly in the elderly.

There are around 300,000 cases of chickenpox a year in the UK. Most people make a full recovery but several hundred suffer complications such as pneumonia and blood poisoning.

Professor Steve Field, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said chickenpox could damage brain development in the foetus during the early weeks of pregnancy. But he also claimed that a comprehensive vaccination programme would "probably only save a few lives" and its main benefits would be economic.

People normally get chickenpox once and are then immune to the virus, but it can occasionally strike twice. Shingles is caused by the chickenpox virus, which lies dormant in the spinal cord and can be reactivated in later life.

The JCVI has been examining the evidence on chickenpox and shingles vaccines since December 2007. A subgroup will meet again in March and its advice will be given to the main committee.

The MMR vaccine, covering measles, mumps and rubella, is given to a child at 13 months of age.

5th January 2009

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