Barbadians are being advised to take necessary precautions against complications of chickenpox as there has been an increase in the number of cases recorded at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and polyclinics across the island.

This was revealed today by Senior Medical Officer of Health (North), Dr. Karen Springer, who said that 12 cases of the disease were reported during epidemiological week 13 (the week ending March 29, 2008).

She noted that for the period February 17, 2008 to March 29, 2008, there were five times as many cases of chicken pox compared to the period December 30, 2007 to February 16, 2008.

Chickenpox is an acute, infectious disease which is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It may initially begin with cold-like symptoms, followed by a high temperature and an intensely itchy, vesicular (fluid-filled blister-like) rash. Clusters of vesicular spots appear over 3 to 5 days, mostly over the trunk and more sparsely over the limbs. It is most commonly seen in children under 10 years old. The severity of infection varies and it is possible to be infected but show no symptoms.

According to Dr. Springer, “chicken pox is a viral infection that will not respond to antibiotics, and treatment should be based on reducing symptoms such as fever and itchiness.”

While noting that persons may turn to home treatments, she said, parents could do several things at home to help relieve their children’s chickenpox symptoms.

While noting that persons may turn to home treatments, she said, parents could do several things at home to help relieve their children’s chickenpox symptoms.

“Scratching the blisters may cause them to become infected, so keep your child’s fingernails trimmed short,” she urged.

Dr. Springer suggested that Calamine Lotion and Oatmeal baths may help to relieve some of the itching and advised individuals not to use aspirin or aspirin-containing products to relieve a child’s fever.

“The use of aspirin in children with chickenpox has been associated with the development of Reye’s syndrome (a severe disease affecting all organs, but most seriously affecting the liver and brain that may cause death). Use non-aspirin medications such as Panadol,” she suggested.

Dr. Springer stressed that if a child with chicken pox acquired a fever lasting longer than four days, with a tendency to rise above 102ºF, a medical doctor should be contacted.

“If the individual with chickenpox seems extremely ill, is difficult to wake up or appears confused, has difficulty walking, has a stiff neck, is vomiting repeatedly, has difficulty breathing, or has a severe cough, a doctor should be called immediately,” she advised. 

The senior health official also added that a medical practitioner should be called “if any areas of the rash or any part of the body becomes very red, warm, or tender, or begin leaking pus (thick, discolored fluid), since these symptoms may indicate a bacterial infection”.

While the disease occurs throughout the year in most countries, it is most common during the winter months.

Most individuals are infected in childhood and they remain immune for life. Chickenpox is highly contagious, infecting up to 90% of people who come into contact with the disease. The mode of transmission is through direct person to person contact, airborne droplet infection or through contact with infected articles such as clothing and bedding. The incubation period (the time from when a person becomes infected to when symptoms first appear) is from 10 to 21 days.

The most infectious period, however, is from 1 to 2 days before the rash appears, but infection continues until all the lesions have crusted over (commonly about 5 to 6 days after the onset of illness).

Following chickenpox infection, the virus can lay dormant in the nervous tissue for several years, but may reappear because of reactivation of the virus as shingles (also called herpes zoster). It is not known what causes the virus to reactivate, but reactivation is usually associated with conditions that depress the immune system such as old age, immunosuppressive therapy and HIV infection.

The Senior Medical Officer of Health indicated that people at higher risk of developing serious complications from shingles or chickenpox (individuals with chronic skin or lung disease, persons receiving steroid therapy or individuals 13 years of age or older) should be given antiviral drugs such as acyclovir, which might prevent severe illness developing.   This should be given at an early stage of chicken pox to be effective.

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