Varicella zoster

Bob recently wrote about Laura’s experience — and his own, in 1979 — with chicken pox. I thought I would add my own CP story, since it’s a fairly unusual one. I contracted the disease in 1988, when I was 28 years old.
Ruth was two years old at the time, and had caught CP in the usual way, from some other kid at her day care center. She developed a full-blown case: mild fever, followed by blisters all over her body. We had been expecting this to happen; no CP vaccine was available at the time, so this was just a standard rite of early childhood. Ruth didn’t seem to mind much (at the age of two, she didn’t care how the blisters made her look, and if they itched, she didn’t complain much). A week or two later, she was fully recovered and back at day care. Marie and I heaved a sigh and turned our attention to other matters, believing that the CP episode was over.
But we were wrong. The next weekend, I developed a low-grade fever, and when a couple of small blisters began to form on my skin, I realized what was happening. I couldn’t believe it. How could I be getting CP at age 28? I didn’t actually remember having it as a child, but I had assumed that it took place when I was too young to recall. I mean, what were the odds of my having gotten all the way through childhood without ever being infected? But just to be sure, I called my mother and asked her: did I have CP when I was a kid? She couldn’t remember. “Then I never had it,” I said. “Trust me, Mom, if you had ever seen this disease, you would remember it.”
This couldn’t be happening. I was 28 years old, and coming down with chicken pox. Why hadn’t my mom ever warned me that I had no immunity against this virus? Oh, right, like that would have done any good. What would I have done when Ruth came down with it, moved to a hotel for two weeks? By that time I was already infected; the virus is contagious before symptoms develop. If I had known that I was susceptible to CP, that just would have given me one more thing to worry about that I basically had no control over. I had been better off not knowing.
By Monday morning I still only had a few blisters, but I knew that the worst was still ahead. At the time I was working at IBM on my very first technical writing contract, and of course we had a major deadline approaching. I decided to go in to work and get as much done that day as I could, before the disease forced me to take time off. But when I explained the situation to Jane, my supervisor on that project, I forgot that she had previously worked as a nurse. She asked what my temperature was, examined the incipient blister on my forehead, and said, “Go home and call me next Monday.” She knew I was going to be out of commission for at least a week.
I have read that before the CP vaccine was developed, mothers of small children often practiced a more primitive form of immunization known as “chicken pox parties.” They would deliberately expose their young children to a kid who had the disease. The idea was that, since your children would have CP sooner or later, it was better to get it over with while they were young. (This also let mothers control when their kids had the disease, instead of being caught by surprise.) In the week that followed, I often wished that my mother had done this, because the worst thing about CP is that it looks awful. Looking in the mirror, I would see my face and body covered with red, fluid-filled blisters. I won’t link to any photographs (you can search for them yourself if you like), but it looks like something out of a horror movie. And the blisters itch like mad. I used topical remedies (Aveeno oatmeal baths and calomine lotion) as much as possible, but it was still very uncomfortable. And you mustn’t scratch, because if you break the blisters, permanent scarring can result. Blisters formed on my scalp (making it impossible to even comb my hair), inside my mouth, and even in my esophagus. It became difficult to eat solid food, and painful to swallow anything. (Except milk, for some reason. I pretty much lived on milk for several days.)
But really, the worst thing about having CP as an adult is the way it makes you look, because it means you’re trapped at home. I spent the entire week in our apartment, because I knew that if I went out in public, people would scream and flee in terror. Having watched Ruth’s case run its course, I knew that this was only temporary. But it was still depressing.
Eventually the blisters healed and I was able to rejoin society. But despite my best efforts, some of the blisters did get broken prematurely, and I still have scars on my face as a result. They’re not very noticeable, but if I point them out, you won’t have any trouble seeing them. (Oh, and let me just mention that when a CP blister inside your mouth breaks, the resulting taste is nauseating. Fortunately, this only happened once.) And, of course, I still have the virus. Once you’re infected with varicella zoster, it remains in your body, dormant, for the rest of your life. It’s not contagious, but factors like stress or fatigue can cause it to flare up again in the form of shingles. So I can never be sure that the virus won’t decide to torture me some more in the future. (But I have nothing special to complain about there; virtually everyone born before about 1990 has also had CP, so we’re all carrying dormant varicella zoster around with us every day.)
Ben wasn’t born yet when this happened, but he went through the usual CP experience when he was two or three. And shortly after that, the vaccine became generally available — just too late to do me or my children any good. But, I told myself, Ben was the last Berry who would ever have CP. Future generations would all be vaccinated, so none of my grandchildren would ever have the disease. But Laura’s experience indicates that it’s not a clear-cut as that. However, as Laura’s doctor pointed out, even if the vaccine doesn’t prevent you from getting CP, it tends to result in a much milder case. So even if my grandchildren won’t be completely immune, I can still hope that they won’t have to go through what I did.
(I know that sounds self-pitying, and that’s not really what I had in mind. I realize that as medical problems go, CP is not much worse that a bad cold. And when I think about my father, who’s been dealing with much more debilitating and painful afflictions for years, I’m embarrased to be making a big deal out of a simple childhood disease. All I’m saying is, CP is NO FUN AT ALL, and I’m glad that future generations will mostly not have to deal with it.)

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