I haven’t the slightest idea what prompted this question. My son was watching Peg + Cat on PBS Kids, and they weren’t even talking about chickenpox. But he looks over at me and asks “do only people get chickenpox?” And you know what? I had no idea. So, since I have the internet at my disposal, I decided to do a little research. Shockingly, the Centers for Disease Control are a veritable goldmine of information on the subject.
Chickenpox is the result of an infection by the varicella zoster virus, which is part of the Herpesviridae family of DNA Viruses. It is one of 8 types of herpesvirus that infect humans. The others are:
- Herpes simplex viruses 1 and 2
- Human herpesvirus 6 and 7
- Epstein-Barr virus
- Human cytomegalovirus
- Karposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus
Varicella zoster virus only infects humans, so technically only humans can get chickenpox. However, there is also a Simian Varicella Virus that infects other primates, causing extremely similar symptoms.
According to the CDC, in the early 1990s an average of 4 million people get chickenpox each year in the United States alone. Between eight and eighteen thousand of these cases are severe enough to require hospitalization, and between 100 and 150 individuals die from it annually. The good news is that we’ve had a vaccine for it since 1995, which works by introducing a less virulent strain of VZV to the body so that the immune system can learn to fight it off. Since it was introduced, there’s been an 82% reduction in chickenpox infections, and a 71% reduction in hospitalization rates for infections. Deaths from chickenpox have declined by98.5% in individuals under the age of 20, by 96% in adults between 20 and 50, and by 49% in individuals over the age of 50.