Chickenpox by Angela Caldin
Easing the Chickenpox Itching
Chickenpox is doing the rounds in the Eastern Suburbs of Auckland and my granddaughters have finally come out in spots after weeks of exposure to infected children, toddlers and babies. The youngest got it a week or two before Christmas and the other two soon followed suit, luckily for us just after Christmas Day and Boxing Day. When I was a child, many years ago, the treatment of choice, or, in fact, the only treatment, was calamine lotion, a delicate pink with a comforting smell which was dabbed on with cotton wool. It was perhaps more soothing to the adults applying it than to the children receiving it but in any event this is now considered to be rather drying and other more moisturising creams are preferred. Anti-histamine medicine can help, though it doesn’t suit all children and there’s always paracetamol when all else fails. There’s also something called Pinetarsol that you can use in solution in the bath and is meant to help sooth inflammation, relieve itching and guard against infection. As far as I could fathom, the only thing this muddy green liquid did was to leave a green tide mark round the bath. There’s also a Pinetarsol gel which can be applied directly to the spots, but again this substance was swampy green and made the little darlings look like small green aliens as well as colouring their clothing with green streaks. In the end and much against the advice of the pharmacist, we bought some calamine lotion and were reassured by its gentle pinkness if nothing else. These various remedies may make things a little better, but the bottom line is that this childhood illness is something to be gone through and got over so that it’s out of the way before you become an adult.
Origin of the Word Chickenpox
Chickenpox is caused by the varicella zoster virus which belongs to the herpes family of viruses. I was interested to find out about the origin of the term chickenpox and found various conflicting accounts. One explanation is that the name came about because the disease is a weaker form of smallpox. Apparently, Samuel Johnson is said to have called the rash ‘chicken’ in the sense of it being feebler and less virulent than the feared and serious affliction which is smallpox. This lethal illness was in turn so called to distinguish it from what was considered the great pox, more commonly known as syphilis. Another explanation is that the term comes from the Old English word giccin, which meant itching, and yet another that it comes from cicer, the Latin word for chickpea because people thought that chickenpox blisters resembled chickpeas. Pox on its own is the term for any disease that causes boils and blisters to break out on the skin. One last explanation is that the blistered spots look as though the skin might have been pecked by chickens, but I really feel that this is unlikely to be right. My money is on giccin, especially when I see the anguished faces of my little granddaughters as they try not to scratch those angry red itchy spots.
There is a vaccine against chickenpox which is widely used in the States and has almost eradicated the disease there, but at present in New Zealand and the UK it is only available in limited circumstances. Apparently it will become generally available in the not too distant future and it certainly would be a good idea to have the option of avoiding the very real discomfort caused. In the course of researching the origin of the word chickenpox, I also discovered that in 1796, Edward Jenner, a country doctor, observed that farmhands and dairy maids who contracted cowpox from cows never became infected with the similar but more virulent smallpox. He concluded that inducing a mild infection of cowpox in people might protect them from getting smallpox and, in what would today be considered a completely unethical experiment, he tested his theory on an 8-year-old boy by introducing into his skin pus from a woman infected with cowpox. Six weeks later, he made two incisions in the boy’s arm and inserted smallpox pus. The boy did not get smallpox. Jenner called his procedure a vaccination, from the Latin vacca, for cow.