Consensus: Varicella Vaccination of Healthy Children: A Challenge for Europe

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The seriousness of varicella-zoster virus (VZV) infection as a public health issue is becoming clearer as country-specific epidemiologic and pharmacoeconomic data become available. In Germany, for example, studies have shown that >5.5% of immunologically healthy individuals develop varicella-related complications such as bacterial superinfections, acute neurologic disorders, pneumonia, bronchitis and otitis media; whereas in Italy, 3.5 to 5% of childhood cases of varicella cause complications such as upper respiratory tract and cutaneous infections.Varicella vaccines are now available. These live attenuated Oka strain vaccines have been shown in extensive studies to be highly immunogenic and well-tolerated in immunocompetent and immunocompromised children, with seroconversion rates ranging from 94 to 100% and 53 to 100%, respectively. These vaccines are also highly effective against clinical disease.These considerations led to a reevaluation of varicella vaccination policies. A routine varicella vaccination program targeting healthy children has already been implemented in the US, and data produced are encouraging and valuable. Similar strategies have not yet been adopted across Europe. The European Working Group on Varicella (EuroVar) was formed in 1998 to address the issues surrounding varicella epidemiology in Europe. After a series of meetings, the EuroVar members prepared a consensus statement recommending routine varicella vaccination for all healthy children between 12 and 18 months and to all susceptible children before their 13th birthday, in addition to catch-up vaccination in older children and adults who have no reliable history of varicella and who are at high risk of transmission and exposure. However, such a policy is recommended only if a very high coverage rate can be achieved. This could be reached with a measles-mumps-rubella-varicella combined vaccine.

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