JEDDAH, 8 April 2007 — “Mummy I feel sick and itchy!” are the last words any mother, especially a working mother with more than one child, would like to hear. According to a local pediatrician, the phrase is a common one in Jeddah nowadays.
“In the past month I have seen a dramatic rise in the number of chickenpox cases coming into the clinic,” Dr. Sabri Tantawi, a pediatrician at the Tarik Bin Laden Clinic, told Arab News. “On a daily basis in my office alone, I am diagnosing as many as three to four cases and have even treated children as young as six months old for the infection,” he added.
Chickenpox, caused by the Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV), is a highly contagious disease that spreads from person to person by direct contact or through the air via coughing or sneezing. Symptoms may include fever, abdominal pain, a sore throat, a headache and a vague feeling of nausea a couple of days before the appearance of a reddish rash.
Doctors advise children diagnosed with the illness to be kept at home until all blisters dry. This usually takes about one week. Most infections commonly occur in children between 5 and 10 years of age with symptoms of the infection beginning within 14 to 16 days after being exposed. Siblings of infected children are also at risk of catching the illness and usually develop the virus about two weeks after the first child does.
“I have three children, a five-year-old boy and two girls aged eight and 10. All have chickenpox,” said Um Bandar. “It’s not easy. They’re all constantly crying, complaining and scratching. I have to keep reminding them not to scratch. Of course, it breaks my heart; I can’t do anything to help relieve their pain except to give them the medicines that the doctor has prescribed. If I could, I would gladly endure the discomfort rather than watch them suffer,” she said.
Chickenpox usually affects children but can be caught by people of any age that have a depressed immune system. This includes pregnant women and the elderly.
According to the latest available statistics offered by the World Health Organization, chickenpox affects approximately 11,000 people in the Kingdom annually. Doctors recommend that children receive a chickenpox vaccine (Varivax) when they are between 12 and 15 months with a booster shot at 4 to 6 years of age. Varivax has shown to be 70 to 85 percent effective in preventing mild infection, and over 95 percent effective in preventing moderate to severe forms of the infection.
“However, healthy children who have had chickenpox do not need to be vaccinated as they usually have lifelong protection against the illness,” said Tantawi.
Tantawi advises people who experience itching and a rash to immediately tell their doctor. “If we can catch the illness in the first 48 hours of the appearance of the rash we can prescribe an anti-viral medication, which has proven to be quite successful in stopping the advancement of the disease into more serious stages,” he added.
Other home remedies found to provide relief are cool compresses that are applied to blisters, as is calamine lotion.
Occasionally a child may develop blisters in the mouth, making eating and drinking a painful experience. To alleviate discomfort, cold fluids and bland foods are advised and foods that are spicy or acidic (tomatoes and orange juice) should be avoided. Cool baths can be given every 3 to 4 hours adding baking soda to the water to calm itching.