Objectives: The implementation of a routine childhood varicella vaccination program in the United States in 1995 has resulted in a dramatic decline in varicella morbidity and mortality. Although disease incidence has decreased, outbreaks of varicella continue to be reported, increasingly in highly vaccinated populations. In 2000, a varicella vaccination requirement was introduced for kindergarten entry in Arkansas. In October 2003, large numbers of varicella cases were reported in a school with high vaccination coverage. We investigated this outbreak to examine transmission patterns of varicella in this highly vaccinated population, to estimate the effectiveness of 1 dose of varicella vaccine, to identify risk factors for vaccine failure, and to implement outbreak control measures.
Methods: A retrospective cohort study involving students attending an elementary school was conducted. A questionnaire was distributed to parents of all of the students in the school to collect varicella disease and vaccination history; parents of varicella case patients were interviewed by telephone. A case of varicella was defined as an acute, generalized, maculopapulovesicular rash without other apparent cause in a student or staff member in the school from September 1 to November 20, 2003. Varicella among vaccinated persons was defined as varicella-like rash that developed >42 days after vaccination. In vaccinated persons, the rash may be atypical, maculopapular with few or no vesicles. Cases were laboratory confirmed by polymerase chain reaction, and genotyping was performed to identify the strain associated with the outbreak.
Results: Of the 545 students who attended the school, 88% returned the questionnaire. Overall varicella vaccination coverage was 96%. Forty-nine varicella cases were identified; 43 were vaccinated. Three of 6 specimens tested were positive by polymerase chain reaction. The median age at vaccination of vaccinated students in the school was 18 months, and the median time since vaccination was 59 months. Forty-four cases occurred in the East Wing, where 275 students in grades kindergarten through 2 were located, and vaccination coverage was 99%. In this wing, varicella attack rates among unvaccinated and vaccinated students were 100% and 18%, respectively. Vaccine effectiveness against varicella of any severity was 82% and 97% for moderate/severe varicella. Vaccinated cases were significantly milder compared with unvaccinated cases. Among the case patients in the East Wing, the median age at vaccination was 18.5 and 14 months among non-case patients. Four cases in the West Wing did not result in further transmission in that wing. The Arkansas strains were the same as the common varicella-zoster virus strain circulating in the United States (European varicella-zoster virus strain).
Conclusions: Although disease was mostly mild, the outbreak lasted for approximately 2 months, suggesting that varicella in vaccinated persons was contagious and that 99% varicella vaccination coverage was not sufficient to prevent the outbreak. This investigation highlights several challenges related to the prevention and control of varicella outbreaks with the 1-dose varicella vaccination program and the need for further prevention of varicella through improved vaccine-induced immunity with a routine 2-dose vaccination program. The challenges include: 1-dose varicella vaccination not providing sufficient herd immunity levels to prevent outbreaks in school settings where exposure can be intense, the effective transmission of varicella among vaccinated children, and the difficulty in the diagnosis of mild cases in vaccinated persons and early recognition of outbreaks for implementing control measures. The efficacy of 2 doses of varicella vaccine compared with 1 dose was assessed in a trial conducted among healthy children who were followed for 10 years. The efficacy for 2 doses was significantly higher than for 1 dose of varicella vaccine. This higher efficacy translated into a 3.3-fold lower risk of developing varicella >42 days after vaccination in 2- vs 1-dose recipients. Of the children receiving 2 doses, 99% achieved a glycoprotein-based enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay level of > or =5 units (considered a correlate of protection) 6 weeks after vaccination compared with 86% of children who received 1 dose. The 6-week glycoprotein-based enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay level of > or =5 units has been shown to be a good surrogate for protection from natural disease. Ten years after the implementation of the varicella vaccination program, disease incidence has declined dramatically, and vaccination coverage has increased greatly. However, varicella outbreaks continue to occur among vaccinated persons. Although varicella disease among vaccinated persons is mild, they are contagious and able to sustain transmission. As a step toward better control of varicella outbreaks and to reduce the impact on schools and public health officials, in June 2005, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended the use of a second dose of varicella vaccine in outbreak settings. Early recognition of outbreaks is important to effectively implement a 2-dose vaccination response and to prevent more cases. Although the current recommendation of providing a second dose of varicella vaccine during an outbreak offers a tool for controlling outbreaks, a routine 2-dose recommendation would be more effective at preventing cases. Based on published data on immunogenicity and efficacy of 2 doses of varicella vaccine, routine 2-dose vaccination will provide improved protection against disease and further reduce morbidity and mortality from varicella.