A simple blood test is readily available, and included in the routine antenatal screen, to check a pregnant woman’s immunity to Chickenpox. If you have had Chickenpox in the past, or have had the immunization, your result will show “immunity”. Your status will be documented on your Antenatal Card, in a tick box marked VZV (Varicella-Zoster Virus). If you have not had this test or the tick box is blank, please enquire at your next visit.
Chickenpox is a viral illness that mainly affects children, though with the introduction of routine vaccination in Australia, the number of cases per year, is decreasing. The onset of the illness is often disregarded as the symptoms are a low grade fever, a runny nose and just feeling unwell. Some days later, small bumps will appear all over the body, that become blisters which rupture and turn into scabs. The diagnosis of Chickenpox is usually made at around this time. Unfortunately, the virus is spread via droplets (sneezing, coughing, runny nose) prior to the telltale scabs appearance, and later, it can be spread via direct contact from the fluid in the blisters. This means that the infectious period is around 2 days prior to the bumps appearing and for around 5 days after the blisters appear.
Diagnosing Chickenpox is usually based on the symptoms alone, especially once the rash has appeared. In suspected cases, a blood test is available or a swab of the blister, which is sent to the laboratory, will provide a definitive diagnosis. The Chickenpox infection triggers an immune response and people rarely get chickenpox twice.
Serious complications of Chickenpox illness in children are rare, but in adults, a form of pneumonia occurs in around 10% of cases. Even rarer, is the development of a type of meningitis – brain inflammation.
Pregnant women who contract Chickenpox are at a greater risk of developing pneumonia, and there are sizeable risks to the unborn child. If the infection occurs prior to 20 weeks’ gestation, there is a small risk, of the infant having a birth defect such as blindness, limb malformation and decreased brain development.
If the mother contracts Chickenpox around the time of delivery, the newborn may develop chickenpox at birth or soon after. Treating the infant early usually reduces the illness to a mild form. If left untreated, the results can be life threatening for the newborn.
Shingles occurs randomly in adulthood, to someone who has had Chickenpox in the past. The cause of the reactivation remains unknown. Shingles cause a Chickenpox-like rash which appears on a small section of the skin producing pain and tingling. The virus can be spread by direct contact with the rash, to people who are non-immune to the varicella virus, and they may develop Chickenpox, not Shingles.
Pregnant women who have low or no immunity to Chickenpox, and who come in contact with the virus, are offered the Varicella-Zoster Immunoglobulin (VZIG). This injection can be given within a few days of contact with the virus and is known to prevent the illness developing or at the very least, developing a very mild illness. VZIG is available at all emergency departments. VZIG is made from the antibodies retrieved from donated blood.
For more information regarding Chickenpox or Shingles, please contact the rooms or ask Dr. Morris at your next visit.