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Chicken pox vaccine for infants is now recommended by the JCVI

Following new data on shingles, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is recommending the use of the chicken pox vaccine in young children.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has recommended that the  chicken pox vaccine should be offered to all children in two doses, at 12 and 18 months of age.

The committee has submitted its recommendations to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), which will take a final decision on whether to implement a programme.

In 2009, the JCVI ruled out a UK-wide programme as evidence at the time suggested introducing it might cause increased cases of shingles in middle-aged adults due to removing community circulation by vaccinating children.

However, a long-term study from the USA disproved that theory and recent research from the University of Bristol shows the vaccine would have a positive impact on children and the NHS.

Temporary chicken pox catch-up programme for older children

The JCVI has also recommended a temporary catch-up programme for older children be included in the initial rollout. This is because chickenpox cases were significantly reduced during the pandemic due to social restrictions, meaning there is currently a larger pool of children than usual without immunity. The catch-up programme would offer them protection against greater risks from the illness through later childhood or as adults, when chickenpox can be more severe.

If approved, it would bring the UK into line with other countries offering routine varicella vaccination, including Germany, Canada, Australia and the United States, the latter of which has had a childhood programme in place since 1995. All have observed significant decreases in the number of cases of varicella and resulting hospitalisations.

Most varicella cases in children are relatively mild; however, some children will go on to develop complications, including bacterial infections such as group A streptococcus. In rare cases it can cause a swelling of the brain, called encephalitis, an inflammation of the lungs, called pneumonitis, and stroke, which can result in hospitalisation and, in very rare cases, death.

Very young infants aged under 4 weeks are more likely to experience serious illness, as are adults. Pregnant women are particularly at risk as it can cause complications in both the mother and the foetus.

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, Chair of the JCVI, said: “Chickenpox is well known, and most parents will probably consider it a common and mild illness among children. But for some babies, young children and even adults, chickenpox or its complications can be very serious, resulting in hospitalisation and even death.

“Adding the varicella vaccine to the childhood immunisation programme will dramatically reduce the number of chickenpox cases in the community, leading to far fewer of those tragic, more serious cases. We now have decades of evidence from the USA and other countries showing that introducing this programme is safe, effective and will have a really positive impact on the health of young children.”

The recommendations will be considered in full by DHSC ministers before any policy decisions are made on a potential new programme.

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