Chicken pox, also spelled
chickenpox, is a common childhood disease caused by the varicella-zoster virus
(VZV), also known as human herpes virus 3 (HHV-3), one of the eight
herpesviruses known to affect humans. It is characterized by a fever
followed by itchy raw pox or open sores.
The disease is rarely fatal:
if it does cause death, it is usually from varicella pneumonia, which
occurs more frequently in pregnant women. In the US, 55% of chicken pox
deaths were in the over-20 age group. Chicken pox has a two week incubation
period and is highly contagious by air transmission two days before
symptoms appear. Therefore chicken pox spreads quickly through schools and
other places of close contact. Once someone was infected with the disease,
they usually develop an immunity and cannot get it again. As the disease is
more severe if contracted by an adult, parents have been known to ensure
that their children became infected before adulthood. Aspirin shouldn't be
used during a chickenpox infection because it can increase the incidence of
a potentially deadly condition called Reye's syndrome.
Doctors advise that pregnant
women who come into contact with chickenpox should contact their doctor
immediately as the virus can cause serious problems for the fetus.
Later in life, virus
remaining in the nerves can develop into the painful disease, shingles. A
chicken pox vaccine is now available, and is now required in some countries
for children to be admitted into elementary school. In addition, effective
medications (e.g., acyclovir) are available to treat chicken pox in healthy
and immunocompromised persons.
One history of medicine book
claims that Giovanni Filippo (1510 - 80) of Palermo gave the first
description of varicella (chicken pox). Subsequently in the 1600s, an
English physician named Richard Morton described what he thought was a mild
form of smallpox as "chicken pox." Later, in 1767, a physician
named William Heberden, also from England, was the first physician to
clearly demonstrate that chicken pox was different from smallpox. However,
it is believed that the name chicken pox was commonly used in earlier
centuries before doctors knew what they were seeing. There are many
explanations offered for the origin of the name chicken pox, from the idea
that the specks that appeared looked as though the skin was picked by
chickens to that the disease was named after chick peas, from a supposed
resemblance of the seed to the lesions. The simplest explanation is
probably that offered by Samuel Johnson, that the disease was "no very
great danger" thus a "chicken" version of the pox.