Teen Death from Chickenpox Reported

Chickenpox killed unvaccinated 15 year old girl after she developed complications

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) A 15-year-old girl died from chickenpox in 2009, reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today. Although death from this virus is rare, it can and still does occur.

Chickenpox was once common among children until the vaccine became available in 1995. The vaccine has dramatically decreased the rate of chickenpox, but individuals who do not get the vaccine are still at higher risk for it.

In this case, a teenager with no previous health problems entered the hospital with chickenpox, developed complications from it and died three weeks later.

Dying from chickenpox or its complications is very uncommon, but it can occur. Approximately 100 to 150 people died from chickenpox each year before the vaccine was available.

"Vaccinate children against chickenpox."

The report, led by Jeremy Budd of the Ohio Department of Health's Bureau of Infectious Diseases, described the case of a healthy teenage girl who died from the chickenpox and complications that developed from the disease.

A 15-year-old girl who had previously been healthy was admitted to the hospital on March 12, 2009, with shortness of breath and a fever of 101.1 F that she had had for one day. She also had a rash for three days, and she tested positive for chickenpox on March 14.

She was provided with mechanical ventilation (help breathing from a machine) within the first six hours that she was at the hospital. However, her ability to breathe worsened, so she was hooked up to invasive mechanical ventilation.

The hospital staff gave her an intravenous medication called acyclovir (brand name Zovirax) that is used to treat infections caused by herpes viruses. Chickenpox is caused by the herpes zoster virus.

She was also given several antibiotics and antifungal medications. However, she developed pneumonia, which became complicated by acute respiratory distress syndrome and a reduction in her red and white blood cells. Several of her organs failed, and she developed a bacterial infection from the hospital.

The girl's condition continued to deteriorate, and her decreased breathing required additional oxygen and pressure. She died three weeks after entering the hospital.

The girl did not have any known underlying medical conditions, and a test of her bone marrow while in the hospital did not show any evidence of leukemia.

The researchers investigating her case do not know how she caught chickenpox. She had already received all doses of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTaP) vaccine, one dose of the Hib vaccine and two doses of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine.

She had not received the varicella vaccine that protects against chickenpox, and she lived in a community that had low vaccination rates for chickenpox.

"The case underscores the importance of varicella vaccination, including catch-up vaccination of older children and adolescents, to prevent varicella and its serious complications," the researchers wrote.

"[Chickenpox] infection has the potential, even among healthy persons, to cause severe complications, including secondary bacterial infection and sepsis, pneumonia, encephalitis, cerebellar ataxia, and thrombocytopenia," according to an accompanying editorial note. "These complications can occur within a few days of rash onset."

Before the chickenpox vaccine was available, approximately 11,000 people were hospitalized for the disease, and about 100 to 150 deaths from it occurred each year in the US.

A person can die from chickenpox even with no other health problems going on. From 2002 to 2007, 112 people died from the chickenpox, and 100 of them (89 percent) did not have any high-risk pre-existing conditions, such as cancer, immunodeficiency conditions or pregnancy.

The varicella vaccine was introduced in 1995 and is more than 95 percent effective at preventing severe cases of chickenpox and death from the chickenpox.

The first dose is recommended between 12 to 15 months. The second (booster) dose is recommended between 4 and 6 years old. Those who miss these doses can get the vaccine on a catch-up schedule.

This report was published April 11 in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 10, 2013
Last Updated:
January 27, 2014