Objective: Varicella is a common infectious disease, usually benign and self-limited, and complications are believed to be rare. The purpose of this study was to describe the epidemiology of severe varicella complications in immunologically healthy children in Germany.
Methods: Information on any admission of children with a severe complication associated with chickenpox was solicited throughout 1997 from all 485 pediatric hospitals in Germany using an established surveillance system. The case definition included nonimmunocompromised individuals who were up to 16 years of age and hospitalized with neurologic complications, bacterial superinfections, or hematologic complications.
Results: The response rate to the surveillance questionnaire during the observation period was high: 93.4%. Of the 153 reported cases, 119 met the case definition. There was a seasonal distribution of reported complications with a peak in March. The majority of complications occurred in preschool-age children with a maximum age of 4 years. No gender predominance was found with a distribution of 56 female and 63 male patients. Multiple entries for complications were allowed. The most frequent complications were neurologic, which were reported in 73 children (61.3%); cerebellitis was the leading diagnosis (n = 48), followed by encephalitis (n = 22), meningitis (n = 2), and central facial palsy (n = 1). A total of 46 (38.6%) infectious complications were identified. Superinfections of the skin were present in 31 (26.0%), pyogenic arthritis was present in 5 (4.2%), osteomyelitis was present in 4 (3.3%), necrotizing fasciitis was present in 3 (2.5%), orbital cellulitis was present in 2 (1.6%), and pneumonia was present in 1 (0.8%). Streptococcus pyogenes was the leading cause of bacterial infections (18 cases [15.1%]), with invasive disease in 6 patients (8.4%) and linked to 4 of 8 cases with defect healing. Infectious complications were reported in the majority in younger children up to 4 years of age, whereas neurologic complications occurred more frequently in an older age range. Five children experienced thrombocytopenia or severe anemia. There was no bleeding disorder, no fatality, and no case of Reye syndrome reported during the 1-year observation period. In total, 8 (6.7%) of 119 patients reported having long-term sequelae, 6 attributable to infectious complications and 2 to persistent deficits after neurologic complications.
Conclusion: This is the first prospective nationwide study of severe complications of varicella in immunologically healthy children. Related to 14 025 867 children up to the age of 16, a crude incidence of severe chickenpox complications of 0.85/100 000 could be calculated [corrected]. The actual hospitalization rate attributable to complicated chickenpox is probably much higher, because this calculation refers to a population theoretically at risk and not the truly susceptible individuals. The results of this study demonstrate considerable morbidity with a comparatively high rate of encephalitis, osteomyelitis, and pyogenic arthritis. Although infectious complications were present in only 38.6% of the reported cases, they contributed disproportionately to the cases with chronic sequelae. Looking at these cases in more detail, S pyogenes involvement was identified as the major risk factor for invasive disease with an unfavorable long-term outcome. varicella-zoster virus, chickenpox/epidemiology, chickenpox/complications, encephalitis, cellulitis, osteomyelitis, necrotizing fasciitis, group A beta-hemolytic streptococci, Europe.