Health Watch -- Chicken Pox Vaccine

Health Watch is a Public Service of the Office of News and Publications and is intended to provide general information only and should not replace the advice of a medical professional. You should contact your physician if you have questions about any of these topics.

Even if you're not a child, you may need to be vaccinated for a common childhood disease.

Many adults remember a childhood bout with chicken pox - days of itchy, scabby blisters. For most children, it's nothing more than an inconvenience and a few days out of school. But doctors at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas say adults who don't have a chicken pox memory may be at risk for something far worse.

In adults, the infection can be much more serious. It may lead to complications such as encephalitis or pneumonia. In some cases, it may even be fatal.

Chicken pox is caused by the varicella virus and gets its nickname because the blisters look like chick peas. A vaccine for varicella has been available in the United States since 1995. Since then, diagnosed cases of chicken pox have dropped significantly. Unfortunately, there are still healthy adults and children dying from the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say many of these adults catch the infection from their unvaccinated children.

Dr. James Luby, a UT Southwestern infectious diseases specialist, says adults who don't remember having chicken pox need to be tested for immunity. Those who aren't immune should get the vaccine. The vaccine is 85 percent effective at preventing disease.

It's most important for those who work in health care or with children to have immunity to the varicella virus. Pregnant women should not receive the vaccine. For more information on this subject, visit


May 2004