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Baby Suffers Stroke After Catching Chickenpox from Unvaccinated Siblings

A reminder why the chickenpox vaccine is so darn important

Okay, here’s a scary story: An 11-month-old boy recently suffered a stroke after being exposed to chickenpox by his unvaccinated older siblings, reports the Journal of Pediatrics.

The poor thing developed weakness on his right side, which his mother noticed when she woke him from his afternoon nap, and doctors diagnosed “a left middle cerebral artery stroke and irregularities in the middle cerebral artery.” They determined the baby had been infected with chickenpox two to three months earlier, when his siblings had it. They had not been vaccinated.

An increasing number of parents have been skipping the chickenpox vaccine, with some dismissing it as a minor illness that most kids will get through quickly and then build up their own immunity and other parents dangerously eschewing vaccines altogether. And while chickenpox is usually a mild disease, being exposed to it, especially as an infant, can sometimes have devastating effects.

Tina Tan, MD, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, told Today, “Everyone thinks it’s a minor illness.” But she points out that there are a number of serious complications that can come with chickenpox, and while it’s still rare, a stroke is one of them.

“Basically, the chickenpox virus infects the large blood vessels in the brain and causes inflammation in them,” Tan explained. “The blood vessels can scar and that can decrease blood supply to the brain, which can lead to stroke.”

There’s often a delay between the time a child develops chickenpox and when a stroke hits. Studies have shown children are most at risk of stroke in the six months following infection with chickenpox.

While some people recover with rehab, others live with permanent disabilities, Tan said. “They can have paralysis or seizure disorders,” she explained. “It all depends on which blood vessels are involved.”

Although the baby in this case was treated and sent home after 10 days, follow-up imaging revealed a grim prognosis. “My read on this is that he will have some type of permanent neurologic sequelae (consequences) from his disease,” Tan said. “And it is possible that he might have another stroke if his arterial disease continues to worsen.”

Ugh. Just awful. And, yes, preventable.

Strokes aren’t the only possible complications from a chickenpox infection. Anyone who has recovered from chickenpox can develop shingles, also called herpes zoster, a blistering painful skin rash.

You can get chickenpox meningitis, which is an infection of the spinal fluid around the cord or the brain,” said Dr. Nina Shapiro, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine, director of pediatric otolaryngology at UCLA, and author of “Hype: A Doctor’s Guide to Medical Myths, Exaggerated Claims, and Bad Advice — How to Tell What’s Real and What’s Not.”

“Chickenpox can also lead to encephalitis, pneumonia and severe dehydration,” Shapiro said. “Occasionally, you can get pox lesions in your mouth that prevent you from eating and drinking.”

If those complications aren’t frightening enough, sometimes the chickenpox sores get infected with bacteria, Tan said, adding “some of these can be quite severe and turn into necrotizing fasciitis” — which can be fatal.

So, PLEASE get your kids vaccinated.

“The risks associated with vaccines are very, very, very small,” said Dr. Aaron Milstone, an associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases and epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Health System.. “But the anti-vaccine community is very loud, especially on social media. They generate a lot of anxiety in those who have not seen the horrors of preventable diseases.”

Parents also need to remember they are vaccinating not just to protect their own children, but also to protect vulnerable members of society who can’t be vaccinated either because they are too young or because they have compromised immune systems, Shapiro said. Herd immunity, which is what occurs when the vast majority is vaccinated, is the only way to protect the vulnerable, she added.

“We don’t drink and drive not just because we don’t want to hit a tree with our car, but because we don’t want to kill anybody,” Shapiro said. “It’s a public health decision, as is getting vaccinated.”

Or, as the mom of another baby who contracted a devastating case of chickenpox put it:

“If you don’t vaccinate your kids, you’re a bloody idiot.”

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