Last December, when my youngest child was just 3 months old, I got a call from my sister about her 4-year-old son. "Alex may have chickenpox," she said. My heart sank. Since my son, Christopher, was born right near the start of cold and flu season, I'd been diligent (okay, maybe borderline paranoid) about keeping him away from people, especially other children, as much as possible. And that was no easy feat, considering that I also have two schoolage kids. Just a few days earlier, though, my sister and her kids, including Alex, had stopped by. My 5- and 7-year-olds had been vaccinated against chickenpox but Christopher was too young to have gotten the shots. Could my new little guy be at risk? I quickly got off the phone with my sister and dialed my pediatrician's office.
As it turns out, I needn't have worried so much. "Chickenpox in babies is uncommon," says Mary Anne Jackson, M.D., division director, infectious disease at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Missouri, and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) committee on infectious disease. "If the baby's mother had chickenpox, or the chickenpox vaccine, then the infant is protected by maternal antibodies, which persist for several months." The vast majority of moms -- including me -- fall into that category. "Only 2 percent of people have not had the natural virus or been immunized against it," says Dr. Jackson.
When to Call the Doctor
"If your baby develops a widespread rash and a fever, talk to her pediatrician," advises Rodney E. Willoughby, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and member of the AAP's committee on infectious disease. "We take fever very seriously in the first three months of life. There could be serious infections in that age range that we can't see without a bunch of tests." Fever can be a sign to take a closer look. Also, there are other rashes that parents might think are chickenpox but really aren't. Your child's doc will want to be sure what your baby has really is chickenpox and not some other type of illness. He'll also want to make sure that if it is chickenpox there are no signs of complications.
Protecting Your Baby
According to the AAP, the best way to protect your baby from chickenpox during the first year of life is to keep him away from children with the active disease. Once he reaches 12 to 15 months, he can have the first dose of the chickenpox vaccine. A second dose is recommended between ages 4 and 6 years.
Even before your baby is old enough to be vaccinated, though, he can benefit from the "herd immunity" created by widespread use of the chickenpox vaccine in children over age one. In a study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that chickenpox in children under 1 year of age declined almost 90 percent between 1995 (the year the vaccine was introduced in the U.S.) and 2008. Since so much of the population is now immune to chickenpox, babies have a lower risk of being exposed to the disease.
But What If ...
If you think your baby may have been exposed to chickenpox, call your pediatrician. He may recommend using a drug called acyclovir during the incubation period or if lesions develop, says Dr. Jackson. "If your baby is otherwise healthy, your pediatrician will most likely explain what the lesions look like and tell you, 'If in about two weeks you see blisters, call me and we can talk about acyclovir,'" she says. That's exactly the advice my son's pediatrician gave me. Fortunately, nothing came of it, and I was able to go back to "just" worrying about keeping my little one cold- and flu-free!
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