Chickenpox is good for you

Children who catch chickenpox are less likely to develop eczema and asthma in later life – this is the finding of new research. Chickenpox is one of the few remaining childhood illnesses which children are still allowed to catch naturally, because routine immunisation is not given; at least that is still the case in the UK. However children in a number of other countries, including the USA, are now vaccinated routinely against chickenpox. Research published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology suggests that routine vaccination may not be such a good idea. This is because catching chickenpox naturally appears to protect children from developing allergic diseases such as eczema and asthma in later life. Children who caught chickenpox naturally were found to have about half the risk of developing eczema when compared with children who had not caught the illness. Those children who went on to get eczema despite having previously had chickenpox developed eczema at a later age and were likely to be less severely affected, requiring fewer visits to the doctor. In fact the research showed that the greatest protection from catching chickenpox was for more severe eczema:children who had caught chickenpox were well over 10 times less likely to develop moderate eczema and a impressive 25 times less likely to develop severe eczema. The authors of the study in New York also found that catching chickenpox protected against asthma, with children who had previously had chickenpox only two thirds as likely to develop asthma as those children who had not had chickenpox.
This research calls into question the value of routinely immunising all children against chickenpox as is done in the USA, Canada and some European countries.
This is not the first time that research has shown that catching a common childhood illness helps prevent chronic allergic disorders. Children who have caught measles naturally are also less likely to develop asthma and allergic disease in later life.
Instead of simply condemning all infectious diseases as harmful, we should remember that we have lived in harmony with bacteria and viruses for thousands, if not millions, of years. Whilst this relationship has at times been an uneasy one it is important to remember that these microorganisms are essential for human life. This fascinating new research on chickenpox reminds us of the benefits that catching these diseases can offer.
In the case of chickenpox it may be that the benefit of the illness outweighs the harm.

Added 20 Dec 2010