Nosocomial transmission of chickenpox and varicella zoster virus seroprevalence rate amongst healthcare workers in a teaching hospital in China

BMC Infect Dis. 2019 Jul 5;19(1):582. doi: 10.1186/s12879-019-4222-x.


Background: Varicella zoster virus (VZV) is a highly contagious herpesvirus with potential for nosocomial transmission. However, the importance of nosocomial chickenpox outbreak in China has often been ignored. With the increasing immunocompromised population in China, a thorough review of issues related to nosocomial transmission and the seroprevalence rate of VZV among healthcare workers is necessary.

Methods: Retrospective case finding for nosocomial transmission of chickenpox was conducted between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2017. Cases were identified based on clinical features compatible with chickenpox. A cross-sectional study on the seroprevalence rate of VZV among healthcare workers (HCWs) was conducted between January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2017. The serum VZV antibodies of 1804 HCWs were measured by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). The seroprevalence rate of VZV antibodies, the positive predictive value and negative predictive value of self-reported history of varicella were analyzed. The economic impact associated with nosocomial transmission of VZV was also assessed.

Results: A total of 8 cases of chickenpox were identified in three nosocomial transmissions, including 4 HCWs who were infected nosocomially. The overall seroprevalence rate of VZV was 88.4%, which significantly increased with age (P < 0.01). The seroprevalence rates of HCWs with different genders and occupations showed no statistically significant differences. The positive and negative predictive values of a self-reported history of varicella were 80.8 and 10.6% respectively. An estimation of 163.3 person-days of work were lost in each nosocomial transmission and 86.7 infection control unit person-hours were required for each outbreak investigation. The cost of VZV IgG ELISA screening was estimated to be 83 USD per nosocomial transmission.

Conclusions: Nosocomial transmission of VZV occurred repeatedly in the hospital setting. An alarming 11.6% of HCWs were seronegative for VZV, which might increase the risk of nosocomial infection and outbreak for other susceptible co-workers and patients. This is especially important in the setting of a teaching hospital where many immunocompromised patients were managed. Furthermore, the positive predictive value of self-reported varicella on seroprevalence rate in our study was lower than those reported in other countries, therefore serological testing of VZV antibodies with subsequent vaccination for all non-immune HCWs should be considered.

Keywords: Chickenpox; China; Healthcare worker; Outbreak; Seroprevalence; Varicella zoster virus.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Antibodies, Viral / blood
  • Chickenpox / epidemiology
  • Chickenpox / transmission*
  • China / epidemiology
  • Cross Infection / epidemiology
  • Cross Infection / transmission
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Disease Susceptibility
  • Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay
  • Female
  • Health Personnel / statistics & numerical data*
  • Herpesvirus 3, Human / immunology
  • Hospitals, Teaching / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Infection Control
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Seroepidemiologic Studies
  • Students, Medical / statistics & numerical data
  • Varicella Zoster Virus Infection / epidemiology
  • Varicella Zoster Virus Infection / transmission*


  • Antibodies, Viral