UK Moves Toward Embracing Chickenpox Vaccine in Policy Reversal

The UK may soon add chickenpox vaccination to the list of routine shots recommended for children, concluding years of debate and bringing its stance in line with other developed countries.

(Bloomberg) — The UK may soon add chickenpox vaccination to the list of routine shots recommended for children, concluding years of debate and bringing its stance in line with other developed countries. 

A panel of vaccine experts is getting closer to making the recommendation at a meeting in October, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who asked not to be identified because the discussions aren’t public.

The decision would mark a reversal for the UK, which has long considered that the vaccination’s drawbacks outweighed its benefits for the National Health Service because it would stop the virus from circulating and providing a natural immunity boost for adults, potentially leading to more cases of another related disease called shingles. 

The UK’s position has made it an outlier among developed nations, with Australia, Germany, Japan and the US all advising the vaccine for children. To join the list of routine shots, the immunization must be deemed cost-effective for the NHS in terms of the benefit it provides to the health system. 

The virus responsible for chickenpox, varicella-zoster, can cause shingles by reactivating years later. But because there are now specific vaccines against shingles as well as more data on long-term use of chickenpox vaccines from the US, the UK’s stance may change. 

Drugmakers that manufacture the vaccines and stand to benefit include Merck & Co. and GSK Plc.

Sick Children

The UK’s approach has long been debated as working parents are forced to take days off work to care for sick children suffering painful symptoms. A number of kids experience severe disease or complications from the virus resulting in hospitalization, and a handful die each year. 

Research published this year found three-quarters of UK parents would support routine chickenpox vaccination. 

Mary Ramsay, head of immunization at the UK Health Security Agency, confirmed that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization is considering whether to add the vaccine to the childhood schedule. If the shot joins the NHS list alongside inoculations for tetanus and whooping cough, it would likely be free, but not mandatory, in line with other routine vaccines.

The UK is reviewing data from the US on its experience with chickenpox vaccinations, which have been given to children there for over 25 years. The committee holds three main meetings a year — in February, June and October — where experts debate changes to their government recommendations on vaccine schedules or safety.

New Entrant 

The experts will have one other consideration that could prompt a review change. Vaccines to protect older adults from shingles have been on offer for years. Shingrix, one such product sold by local drugmaker GSK, has become one of the company’s blockbusters, garnering about £3 billion ($3.7 billion) in sales last year.

Chickenpox symptoms usually include a high fever followed by a rash of itchy spots all over the body. Symptoms can appear up to three weeks after exposure and individuals are infectious from one day before the rash appears until the spots crust over.

The US estimates that mortality has dropped by 89% between 1995, when it started vaccinating, and 2019. The number of infants younger than one contracting the virus also decreased, even though they’re too little to get the shot. The number of pregnant women hospitalized with the infection has dropped as well. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention presented its data to the JCVI’s varicella subcommittee last September.

The shot is a live vaccine — an inoculation that contains a weakened version of the virus — and a small number of children do develop a mild chickenpox rash and fever after getting it.

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