Common Sense Health: Chickenpox-Shingles Connection


By Maureen McDonnell, RN


If you’ve been reading my articles on common sense approaches to health for a while, you’ve probably correctly determined that I’m not a big advocate of Big Pharma’s message to just take a pill for everything that ails you, or a vaccine for everything that someday might make you sick).  Most likely, it’s also become apparent to you that I hold a strong aversion to this same industry’s use of fear when attempting to convince people to make a specific health care decision… as in the current campaign to convince the over 50 crowd to run out and get their Shingles vaccine.  


After 35 years as a registered nurse, I’ve learned if you look a little deeper into most health related topics, you’ll usually uncover some interesting facts that tend to round out the story.   This leads me to admit a third bias… I like to find the truth behind the hype… the other side of the story.   


Let’s start with a quick review of where this story begins… with Chickenpox. This once common and mostly mild childhood illness is caused by a virus: Varicella Zoster, a member of the Herpes Virus family (which is also associated with shingles.)   Typically, chickenpox affects children between the ages of 5 and 9, causes a rash and fever and lasts 2-3 weeks.   After recovery, the child typically develops “long lasting” immunity.  It is estimated that before the chicken pox vaccine was introduced in 1995, there were approximately 3.7 million cases of chickenpox in the US per year (with an estimated 100 deaths per year associated with this illness, mostly in immune compromised children and adults.)  


After recovery from chickenpox, the virus lies dormant (asleep) in the nerve endings.  As a person ages, if their immune system becomes weakened or compromised by either physical or emotional stress, the virus can be reactivated and reveal itself in the form of shingles; which is a very painful close cousin of the chickenpox virus.   


A little known fact about these two illnesses is that by vaccinating most children against chickenpox we may have interfered with an elegant plan by Mother Nature to protect us as we age.  In addition to developing long lasting immunity after we have chickenpox as a child, nature designed it so that each time we are exposed to children with chickenpox, our bodies receive an immune boost to the virus therefore giving us higher levels of protection against shingles.  


Could it be that in our attempt to outsmart and disregard Mother Nature’s plan for our good health, we made a clumsy mistake?  Prior to the advent of the chickenpox (Varicella) vaccine, it is estimated that only 10% of the population over age 15 had not had chickenpox. In 1995, the Varicella vaccine Varivax (which only provides temporary immunity) was introduced by Merck.  Over the 17 years since then, most experts report that chickenpox rates in children have diminished.  That’s good news until you learn that the incidence of shingles during that same time period has drastically increased in adults.  


Shingles is marked by pain and a blister-like rash on one side of the body.  Additionally, it can cause headache and flu like symptoms.  Most recover within a 3-5 week period without incident.  However, some individuals develop post herpetic neuralgia (PHN) which is characterized by pain that can last for months.


Gary Goldman, Ph.D,  a former analyst for eight years with the Varicella Active Surveillance Project in LA County reports in his research (that was partially funded by the CDC and published in the International Journal of Toxicology)  that the increased rates of shingles in Americans has to do with the government’s 1995 recommendation that all children receive the chickenpox vaccine.  (2)


Joseph Mercola, MD agrees with Dr. Goldman and very clearly states in his article that appears on his popular health and wellness website  “By attempting to eliminate an essentially harmless childhood disease – chickenpox – another unnecessary disaster is being created.”  Because if all children are vaccinated, adults who have had chickenpox are no longer protected against developing shingles.”   (3)


So, what’s a mother to do about her concern over her child getting chickenpox, and what’s grandma to do with her fears regarding her and grandpa developing painful shingles?   No one can make the decision for a parent as to whether or not they should give their child the Varicella vaccine or ProQuad (chickenpox vaccine combined with the MMR) or take them to a chickenpox party and have them contract the virus naturally.   But when the question is posed to me, I do encourage parents to dig a little deeper into the subject and not completely abdicate responsibility for their child’s health by making decisions solely based on the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics or government health agencies.   The better informed a parent is regarding the facts and the full story, the better their decisions will be regarding their child’s health.


Being of the post-50 crowd myself and having seen friends suffer the symptoms associated with shingles, I’m not going to proclaim I have the right answer for everyone regarding the shingles vaccine.  My main intent is to reveal some background facts and information on the consequences of not following the laws of nature.   As a health educator, I encourage people of all ages to do all they can to support the immune system’s ability to fight off illness (which in some instances may include selective vaccinations) and when illness does strike, to do all they can to give the immune system the help it needs to minimize the symptoms.


Creating more vaccines (approximately 145 are in the pipeline) may be Big Pharma’s expensive answer for preventing illness, but savvy individuals know they need to do more  Doing their homework by researching the facts leads these individuals to guard themselves against illness by: eating whole foods including organic vegetables, fruit and lean protein sources, taking immune enhancing herbs and vitamins, drinking plenty of pure filtered water, exercising,  limiting sugar and their exposure to toxins and practicing stress management techniques; all of which enhance our body’s ability to fight infection and sustain good health.  


The US now specifies that 26 vaccines be given in the first year of life; that’s more than any other country in the world.  Interestingly, we also have one of the highest infant mortality rates (we rank 34th) and the highest incidence of autism (4).  Protecting our children and ourselves from infection is of paramount importance.  However, using fear instead of facts to motivate young parents to give the Varicella vaccine, or using the same tactic to encourage the post-50 crowd to run out and get the shingles vaccine (Zostavax, also made by Merck provides protection against shingles approximately 50% of the time) seems more like a marketing ploy than a public health service.


Doctors often warn parents (who choose not to give their child every vaccine that comes on the market) that they are playing Russian roulette with their child’s health.  The same message is now being conveyed to older folks who are scolded for not getting the shingles vaccine.  But I believe the real gamble comes when we rely solely on vaccines, and a little luck to keep us healthy rather than taking charge of our health with a superior diet and natural immune supporting strategies.  I’m not the gambling type,  but when it comes to avoiding or minimizing illness, learning and implementing the laws of Mother Nature seems to be the surest bet!   


2.  Goldman, G, International Journal of Toxicology, 24(4):205-213, Universal Varicella Vaccination: Efficacy Trends and Effect on Herpes Zoster
4. Delong G, J Toxicol Environ Health. 2011 Jan: 74(14):903-16A Positive Association found between Autism Prevalence and Childhood Vaccination uptake across the US Population,
Goldman, G: Vaccine, 23(25):3349-3355, Cost-benefit analysis of universal varicella vaccination in the U.S. taking into account the closely related herpes zoster epidemiology.



Maureen McDonnell, RN
Saving Our Kids, Healing Our Planet
IMUS Ranch for Kids with Cancer

Maureen McDonnell, RN
Written by Maureen McDonnell, RN