Thursday, September 13, 2012

Chicken pox vaccination policy in the UK - did it cost Elana's life?

The UK is often cited in discussions about the chicken pox vaccine. After all, they are a perfectly developed country, they even speak (vaguely) the same language as the US and the NHS's chicken pox policy spells out what (US) vaccine critics have known all along: the disease is harmless in children and vaccinating against it will increase the incidence of shingles in the older population.
The chickenpox vaccine is not part of the UK childhood vaccination programme, because experts think that introducing a chickenpox vaccination for children could increase the risk of shingles in older people. ...
Chickenpox is usually a mild illness, particularly in children. 
This view has been repeatedly challenged. The BBC claimed cost as one major reason the NHS doesn't provide the varicella vaccine and cited Dr David Elliman, immunisation expert at the the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), stating that MMR fears need to be overcome in the UK before a further live viral vaccine could be successfully introduced (more suffering due to the Wakefield/MMR/autism manufactuversy):
"The chickenpox vaccine is definitely desirable, and I think it it will happen, but unfortunately I don't think we are ready for the debate yet - not until we get MMR rates back where they need to be. We need to win that one first."
This is particularly cynical since more patients are dying of chicken pox in England and Wales every year than from pertussis, mumps, measles and hib combined.
Mortality from chickenpox is not negligible. During
1995/­7, 81 deaths were recorded by the Office for
National Statistics. However, we received 119 certifi-­
cates that mentioned chickenpox or varicella. After
detailed inquiries, we estimated that at least 75 were
genuine cases of chickenpox. This suggests at least 25
deaths from chickenpox annually. In 1996/­7 there were
seven certified deaths from whooping cough, mumps,
measles, and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) men-­
ingitis in England and Wales compared with 67 from
In the meantime, children are either protected by a varicella vaccine purchased privately from a travel clinic (if parents are 1. aware of the option and 2. tenacious enough to find a clinic 3. well off enough to afford this), or they have to suffer through chicken pox. Elana had to have chicken pox and while her brother, who had them first, had a mild case, Elana developed pox in her lungs and died. Just like that:
Elana was three years old when she came out in spots on Easter Sunday 2009. She was fit and healthy and, as her brother had fended off a fairly mild dose of chickenpox the week before, I wasn’t worried. What was to follow has changed my family’s lives forever.
That evening, Elana was a bit tired and wanted to curl up in front of the television but she didn’t seem particularly ill – her spots were not even particularly itchy. But as the week progressed, she seemed to get more lethargic and her condition worsened.
By Thursday, the spots had started to crust over and I thought she should have been getting better but there was no improvement. On Friday night I called the emergency GP and went to a community health centre to have her looked at. The doctor diagnosed Elana with possible pneumonia and recommended that we take her straight to the hospital.
By 11pm on the Friday night we were in hospital and Elana was very unwell. At 6.04am on Saturday morning she suffered a cardiac arrest. Elana was pronounced dead at 7am.
The UK Department of Health touted the party line:
We wrote to the UK government but the Department of Health says severe cases of chickenpox infection are rare and occur mostly in immuno-compromised children. However, I can say from witnessing it first-hand that my daughter was fit and healthy before she picked up the virus. In fact, Elana only ever needed to see a doctor when she was having routine immunisations. I know some other parents who have had the same experience.  
Elana's mum is now spreading awareness of the potential dangers of chicken pox and the availability of the vaccine. It is striking that in the UK, the vaccine is such a well-kept secret that even she, as a nurse, was not aware of it. So: help her - don't let the death of her precious daughter have been wasted. Talk about the vaccine as a real option, tell your neighbours, your GP, your MP, post it on Mumsnet and other fora.


  1. That whole "more older people will get shingles" argument is so ridiculous to me. For one, there is a vaccine for that and even if there wasn't we can get rid of shingles at the same time as we get rid of chicken pox, in the vaccinated generations. What is wrong with people?
    Are people somehow not learning conceptual logic? When I talk to people lately, even about relatively simple things, it seems they cannot see the big picture or how the pieces they have fit so they spend all their time thinking about extraneous pieces and thinking they fit better when they don't fit at all.

  2. Do you think it is possible that her routine immunisations played a role in hindering her ability to fight off the infection of the chickenpox? The side effects are a long list, that could compromise a 3 year olds immune system.

    1. no, it is not possible, Anon. Routine childhood immunisations do not compromise the immune system and at the age of three, Elana's last routine immunisation would have been 2 years earlier. Of course, total vaxxaloons insists that even mum or dad's vaccine can have a negative influence on the child. Completely crazy borne out of the desperate wish that every evil should stem from vaccines.

  3. Thanks for sharing this story. As I noted on my Wanted Poster for varicella, based on information from the CDC's Pink Book, deaths, while rare, are more common in the otherwise healthy, than in the chronically ill.

  4. (I don't want to start an international *incident* but), the CDC recommended the second dose of MMR vaccine, 1989. How many years elapsed between the date of the CDC recommendation and the NHS recommendation for the second MMR vaccine?

    The CDC recommended one dose of varicella vaccine, 1999 and the second dose of varicella vaccine, 2006. Just when is the NHS going to review the studies from the USA about the success of varicella vaccine and studies about the decrease in shingles with the zoster vaccine?

    Because "one picture is worth a thousand words", take a look at this close-up photo of this beautiful little girl who died from pertussis...

    1. How many years elapsed between the date of the CDC recommendation and the NHS recommendation for the second MMR vaccine?

      MMR was approved for use in the USA in 1971. It was approved for use in the UK in 1988. That is seventeen years.

  5. Thank you for addressing this.
    I read the article you quoted on the NHS direct website a few days ago, and was pretty shocked - the policy is so clearly not based on the best available evidence. I found the fearmongering about shingles to be particularly annoying - it even spawned a series of articles in publications like the Daily Mail with such titles as "WHY THE CHILDREN GETTING THE CHICKEN POX VACCINE COULD GIVE YOU SHINGLES!!".

  6. I have just taken my daughter to be vaccinated today as a direct result of Elana's story. Trying to spread the word is not as straight forward as it sounds. No mums that I have spoken to have heard of it and hardly any seem interested especially when they know it costs £150. They are all of the same mind that chicken pox won't hurt their children and when I try to tell them otherwise they laugh at me as though I am a crazy woman.

    1. Thank you Bonkersbird! I hear you on spreading the word - I'll post something else on chicken pox to do so tonight.

  7. Hi. I've started publishing a website which shows a map of clinics in the UK that offer varicella vaccinations for children: . Feedback and information very welcome at . I've found surprisingly few clinics. Thanks.