Varicella is a disease caused by an infection with the varicella zoster virus (VZV). More commonly known as the childhood disease called Chickenpox, the virus also exhibits itself in adults as Shingles. The virus is sometimes referred to as "herpes zoster" but should not be confused with "genital herpes" and has absolutely no association with sexually transmitted diseases.
Cases of Varicella are characterized by an itchy rash and fever. The face, scalp, chest, back and stomach appear with blister-type spots which are highly contagious. Coughing and sneezing also transmit the disease which lasts about five days to a week. Incubation is usually seven to twenty-one days before symptoms appear. For younger children, the risks are minimal but it is generally very serious in people over the age of fifteen.
Once a person contracts varicella (chickenpox), and recovers, the virus lies dormant in the body. It is very rare that someone would suffer from chickenpox more than once in a lifetime. But because the VZV remains, as a person grows older, generally after fifty years of age, it is possible for it to reappear in the form of Shingles. Many people get shingles on the face, around the waist, or on the scalp. Regardless of where the affliction takes place, the rash-like infection is incredibly painful causing fever, nausea, vomiting, headache, itching and tingling sensations.
Today there is much controversy surrounding vaccines, and many parents are reluctant to have their children immunized. In particular, many view the varicella vaccine as "silly" since generations have lived successfully understanding that chickenpox were just one of those diseases that every child gets. As a result, it has become commonplace to hold a type of "chickenpox party" where several children from the same family or neighborhood play together with the express purpose of them being exposed to the sick child. The other children either contract Varicella themselves or become immune to it. For some parents, this natural approach seems more favorable than injecting their children.
Varicella research has been done for many years now, as it was necessary in order to develop a vaccine. In fact, chickenpox vaccines were available in the US in 1995, and in Canada in 1999. In the US, "Varivax" is produced by Merck and Company Inc. In Canada, two varicella vaccines were approved called "Varivax II®" by Merck Frosst Canada & Co. and "Varilrix®" from SmithKline Beecham Pharma.
Varicella research continues as exposure to the disease by pregnant women is known to cause birth defects and serious complications. Further, it has been found that even if a parent of a sick child comes in contact with a pregnant woman, that it can be detrimental to the unborn child. Defects in the eyes and limbs have occurred, as well as maternal deaths. Along the same lines, much Varicella research has been conducted to determine whether a mother can protect her new baby with antibodies by breastfeeding the baby and passing on her immunities to varicella.
Another area where Varicella research is significant is in the treatment of shingles and the level of damage left by the disease on older people. Without research, companies would not have been able to develop drugs such as acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex), and famciclovir (Famvir), to treat Varicella. Shingles cannot be passed on to others, but varicella research has found that the virus can be passed on to someone who has never had chickenpox. In this instance, the person would come down with chickenpox and not shingles. And unlike chickenpox, shingles cannot spread the virus through coughing or sneezing.
Lastly, in rare cases, incidence of shingles has led to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation or death. But Varicella research has shown that these are isolated instances with mitigating factors.