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Chickenpox rare, more severe in adults

BY LAUREL BLACK lblack@paducahsun.com

At first, Matt Jones thought he'd come down with one of the worst cases of the flu he'd ever had.

Then he found a bump on his left arm. A couple days later, blisters started forming on his face, and he knew he had to see a doctor. The blisters multiplied, and he ended up spending four days in a hospital bed, medicated for pain, while physicians tried to diagnose his illness.

"I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy," said Jones, 42, who is circulation director for The Paducah Sun. 

Physicians suspected that he had contracted Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a potentially fatal tick-borne illness. But blood work revealed no trace of the disease. Jones finally found out he had chickenpox. The diagnosis, he said, surprised doctors.

Before the development of the varicella, or chickenpox, vaccine, the disease was practically a rite of passage. In the early 1990s, an average of 4 million people - 90 percent of whom were children - came down with chickenpox. The vaccine became available in the United States in 1995, and the incidence of varicella declined 82 percent between 2000 and 2010. 

The CDC says that healthy people born in the United States before 1980 don't need the chickenpox vaccine, as they are likely already immune due to exposure. But some adults, like Jones, manage to slip through the cracks. He never had chickenpox as a child and was never vaccinated against it as an adult.

In healthy children, the disease is generally more mild than it is for adults, who are at higher risk for respiratory complications such as pneumonia, according to Dr. Carl LeBuhn, an infectious disease physician who sees patients at Lourdes hospital and Baptist Health Paducah.

LeBuhn said the disease, which has an incubation period of 14 to 16 days, is more contagious than other airborne illnesses such as influenza. Being in the same room with someone infected with varicella is enough to contract the virus.

So it's not surprising, LeBuhn said, that Jones has no idea how he contracted it.

"There's nobody in my family sick, and nobody at work who has the chickenpox. I have no clue how I received this," he said.

The illness has taken its toll on Jones, who says he feels exhausted. He has missed several days of work and now risks missing a long-awaited vacation if his rash doesn't heal soon.

His wife, Tamara, had chickenpox as a child and has been able to help care for him, but he has missed hugging his 10-year-old daughter, Loren.

"I hate that it's happened to me, and I wouldn't want it to happen to anybody else," he said.

The CDC recommends that most children, adolescents and adults receive two doses of the chickenpox vaccine, with specific immunization schedules depending on their age. People with compromised immune systems or cancer should check with a doctor before receiving the vaccine.

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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