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Chicken Pox – A Form of Herpes?

Almost all of us have suffered from it at least once, mostly while in our childhood years – a mild fever with a sudden breakout of an intensely infectious and itchy rash.  The dreaded chicken pox has sent generations of young kids packing home from school – the next couple of weeks seeming like years for the bed-ridden, poor sufferers.

Before the discovery of the Varicella vaccine in the US, almost no one was spared this illness 90% of all cases occurring in those younger than ten years of age.  

But even while this happens to be one of the most common of all illnesses, what few know, is that the virus that causes it – the Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV), is actually a form of herpes.

When we hear of herpes, we mostly associate it with the two kinds that are transmitted sexually –

Type 1 (Oral Herpes) and Type 2 (Genital Herpes)….but in effect, there are as many as 25 known viruses that fall into the ‘Herpes’ category. The scientific term for them is Herpesviridae, and they can be further compartmentalised into three sub categories – Alphaherpesvirinae, Betaherpesvirinae and Gammaherpesvirinae.

Out of the twenty-five viruses, eight are known to affect human beings.

The Varicella Zoster Virus, also called the Human Herpes Virus-3, known to be the primary cause behind chicken pox, if treated in time, is completely curable. However serious complications, although rare, have not been totally absent.

Bacterial infections of skin blisters, pneumonia, even encephalitis (brain inflammation), are some of the complications that can occur from chicken pox, mainly targeting infants, adolescents and adults with a weakened immune system. Moreover, the Vericella Virus does have the tendency to remain dormant in your nerve roots, and then cause the Zoster Virus (Shingles), later in your life. This delayed infection, called the Herpes Zoster Virus, like other herpes viruses, causes an itchy rash to appear.

Most people are lucky enough to not get chicken pox more than once.

But because the Varicella Zoster Virus remains in the body after an initial infection, there is more than a possibility of it to return. While chicken pox shows up mostly on the face, scalp and limbs, the Zoster, which literally means ‘belt’, results in rashes that appear mostly in the trunk area. It is, for all practical purposes, a mere reactivation of the Vericella Virus.

The Varicella vaccine was first licensed way back in 1995 to take on the Varicella Zoster Virus. But in 2006, a new product, called the VariZIG was made available for the protection of patients who had not been exposed to Varicella, were at high risk for severe disease and complications and had also been exposed to chicken pox.

Thus, those with an immune system that has weakened for some reason, pregnant women, new born children whose mothers may be carrying symptoms of Varicella around the time of delivery, as well as premature born kids who have been exposed to chickenpox around them  – each fell into patient groups recommended to receive VariZIG. 

The other interesting fact and one that surprises most, is that two particular types of herpes viruses – one that causes cold sores and the one that causes chicken pox – can both lead to some serious eye complications. 

Yes, the Varicella-Zoster Virus and the Herpes Simplex Type 1, also called HSV1, can cause herpetic eye diseases. When the Varicella-Zoster Virus affects the eye, it is called Herpes Zoster Ophthalmicus.  While the HSV1 – the same virus that gives you cold sores on the lips and mouth region, can also cause an infection of the cornea, which is then called Herpes Simplex Keratitis.

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