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Children could be given routine chickenpox jabs

By Claire Harrison

A leading doctor last night urged the Department of Health here to consider routinely vaccinating children and pregnant woman against chickenpox if a Government committee looking at such plans recommends it.

The Department of Health in Northern Ireland is monitoring plans being considered by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to vaccinate children and pregnant woman against chickenpox.

If the plan gets the go ahead from the committee, the chickenpox vaccine is likely to be added to the MMR triple vaccine making it a four-in-one jab.

The committee is also looking at vaccinating pregnant women against chickenpox as well as adults against shingles, which is caused by the same virus and is a more serious condition, particularly for elderly people.

The committee is an independent expert body which advises the ministers for health across the UK on communicable diseases and immunisation.

It has been considering vaccinating children against the infectious disease, which most youngsters catch and which can kill in rare cases, since 2007.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health at Stormont confirmed it is waiting on the committee’s ruling.

“The JCVI advises the four Health Departments with independent expert advice on all vaccine issues. JCVI have been examining the evidence on chickenpox and shingles vaccines since December 2007 and a recommendation is to be made later this year. DHSSPS will await this advice,” she said.

Chickenpox affects around 300,000 people a year in the UK and most make a full recovery. But a few hundred suffer complications and around 50 people die, mainly children. Critics regard the proposal as over-protective because of the low fatal risks of chickenpox. Although vaccination may save a few lives, the main benefits are expected to be economic — reducing pressure on hospitals and time off from school or work for patients.

Dr Brian Dunn, chair of the British Medical Association's GPs Committee in Northern Ireland, said if the JCVI recommends a vaccination, the department here should take its advice.

“I suppose it would be something of a social vaccine in that chickenpox doesn’t present the same dangers to children as measles does, it just isn’t in the same category. While it isn’t as dangerous, there’s no doubt chickenpox places great pressure on the health system. There are a number of countries which already vaccinate against chickenpox, such as America, Australia and Germany. In fact in America, a child is not allowed to go to school until they have been vaccinated,” said the Larne GP.

“If the committee recommends this course of action, I would expect the Department of Health here to do exactly the same. As clinicians, we will listen to the experts and take their advice on whether a vaccination programme should be implemented.”

Guidelines in the Republic already recommend pregnant women be given the jab if they are not immune. More than 90% of pregnant women are immune to the chickenpox virus.

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