Getting chickenpox was once a childhood rite of passage – nearly everyone contracted the disease at some point in their youth. Indeed, some parents were known to have “pox parties” to deliberately infect their children at a young age when the symptoms tend to be mild. But the days of playing chicken with the scratch-inducing virus are rapidly coming to a close: the aggressive introduction of an effective vaccine is now making chickenpox infections as rare as hen’s teeth.
What is chickenpox? Technically speaking, it is an infection with the Varicella-Zoster virus (which is a member of the Herpesviridae family of viruses, and a cousin of herpes and mononucleosis). More generally, it is a highly contagious, though generally non-serious, illness usually spread through direct contact (or coughing and sneezing) that produces hundreds of itchy-red spots all over the skin.
Superficially, these spots resemble the marks left by smallpox, which probably accounts for the name “chickenpox” – a weak-version of the far more serious disease – though other etymological theories spring from the resemblance of the marks to chicken pecks or chick peas and the phonetic similarity of the Old English word giccan, meaning “to itch.”
In any case, wherever the word came from, with a vaccine around, the sky is falling on the Varicella-Zoster virus. But don’t count all your chickens before they hatch: because the vaccine is made from a weakened form of the live virus, if you’re no longer a spring chicken, there is still a chance that the vaccine-virus, like good ol’ chickenpox, will come home to roost one day in the form of shingles.