Elana was three years old when she came out in spots on Easter Sunday 2009. She was fit and healthy and, as her brother had fended off a fairly mild dose of chickenpox the week before, I wasn’t worried. What was to follow has changed my family’s lives forever.
That evening, Elana was a bit tired and wanted to curl up in front of the television but she didn’t seem particularly ill – her spots were not even particularly itchy. But as the week progressed, she seemed to get more lethargic and her condition worsened.
By Thursday, the spots had started to crust over and I thought she should have been getting better but there was no improvement. On Friday night I called the emergency GP and went to a community health centre to have her looked at. The doctor diagnosed Elana with possible pneumonia and recommended that we take her straight to the hospital.
By 11pm on the Friday night we were in hospital and Elana was very unwell. At 6.04am on Saturday morning she suffered a cardiac arrest. Elana was pronounced dead at 7am.
We were devastated. We didn’t know that chickenpox could be so serious but we found ourselves having to explain to our son – who was six at the time – that his sister had died from an infection that he had had just days before she fell ill.
A post-mortem was ordered which took six weeks and meant we couldn’t have a funeral until the hospital returned her to us. The results showed that nothing untoward had happened during Elana’s treatment but the pathologist said she had died due to chickenpox lesions in her lungs.
A chickenpox vaccine is now available but in most European countries, including the UK where I live, it is not on the childhood immunisation schedule. You can buy it yourself for around £60 in the UK.
The price would be off-putting for some but most people are not even aware that the vaccination exists or that chickenpox can be fatal.
We wrote to the UK government but the Department of Health says severe cases of chickenpox infection are rare and occur mostly in immuno-compromised children. However, I can say from witnessing it first-hand that my daughter was fit and healthy before she picked up the virus. In fact, Elana only ever needed to see a doctor when she was having routine immunisations. I know some other parents who have had the same experience.
I had the impression until Elana became ill that chickenpox was never dangerous. I’m a trained nurse and spent two years as a practice nurse giving childhood immunisations yet I did not know about the chickenpox jab.
Several countries including the US, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Albania to name a few, have implemented the vaccine into their immunisation programmes. As a result there is greater awareness of the need for protection against chicken pox and vaccination is routine. If Elana had had a vaccine around 13-15 months it could have meant that even if she had gotten chickenpox, it might not have been so severe.
My goal now is to talk with other parents about the potential complications of chickenpox and to let people know that there is a vaccine that helps protect against the disease. As a mum, I don’t want the death of Elana to be wasted – I want others to be able to benefit from our experience.