updated 9/7/2004 11:01:20 AM ET 2004-09-07T15:01:20

Vaccinating children against chickenpox saves the U.S. health care system nearly $100 million a year in reduced hospitalizations for severe cases of the itchy disease, a study found.

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Though most people who get the usually mild disease can be treated at home, chickenpox can be serious, and complications requiring hospitalization can include severe skin infections, encephalitis and pneumonia.

In 1993, two years before the government licensed the vaccine for routine use in early childhood, nearly 14,000 Americans were hospitalized for chickenpox-related complications at a cost of $161 million, compared with 3,729 hospitalizations and $66 million in related costs in 2001, the researchers estimated.

Routine vaccination has reduced cases in young children who get the shots and helped keep the disease from spreading to unvaccinated older children and adults, in whom the disease tends to be more severe.

Less complications, less hospitalizations
The reduction in the disease “is excellent news for the vaccine program,” said lead researcher Dr. Matthew Davis, a University of Michigan pediatrician who said he has no ties to the vaccine makers. The study was funded by the university.

Dr. Ben Z. Katz, an infectious disease specialist at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, said the numbers are believable and were not unexpected.

“There’s less complications, less hospitalizations, and you’re saving money to boot. It’s all good news,” Katz said.

The study appears in September’s Pediatrics, prepared for release Tuesday.

Davis and colleagues analyzed 1993-2001 data from a nationally representative annual compilation of patients discharged from hundreds of hospitals nationwide, including information on costs and diagnoses.

Before 1995, 41 percent of patients hospitalized for chickenpox were children from infancy through age 4, compared with 33 percent for people age 20 and older. That pattern reversed by 2001, when 28 percent of chickenpox-related hospitalizations were very young children and 46 percent were adults, the researchers found.

Despite indirect protection from vaccinating young children, adults and teens who have not yet had chickenpox should consider getting the shots themselves, Davis said. This is especially important for those who work with young children and for women of childbearing age, because the disease can be dangerous for the developing fetus, and the shots are not advised during pregnancy, he said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a single dose of vaccine for all children between the ages of 12 months and age 13 who have never had chickenpox. Two doses several weeks apart are advised for older children and adults who’ve never had the disease.

Last year, almost 85 percent of toddlers received the chickenpox vaccine. It is considered about 80 percent effective at preventing the disease. When vaccinated people do develop chickenpox, it’s almost always a mild case, according to the CDC.

There were about 4 million cases of chickenpox annually nationwide before the vaccine was introduced but a CDC spokeswoman said there are no current national figures.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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