Today, Google honored Dr. Michiaki Takahashi, a Japanese infectious disease researcher who invented the first chickenpox vaccine. He would have been 94 today.
Takahashi (17 February 1928 – 16 December 2013) was inspired to develop a vaccine after his three-year-old son developed chicken pox. It was 1963, and Takahashi and his wife had moved to Houston. He told the Financial Times:
… my son developed a rash on his face that quickly spread across his body. His symptoms progressed quickly and severely. His temperature shot up and he began to have trouble breathing. He was in a terrible way… He seemed so ill that I remember worrying about what would happen to him.
But gradually the symptoms lessened and my son recovered. I realised then that I should use my knowledge of viruses to develop a chickenpox vaccine … I had gone to Houston on a one-year fellowship with the Rockefeller Foundation to study the link between viruses and cancer …
After moving back to Japan in 1965, he proved that there was no link between the chickenpox virus and cancer. He began working on the vaccine in 1970 and started clinical studies in 1972.
The US Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine for use here in 1995. Before the varicella vaccine became available in the U.S., chickenpox infections led to 10,000 hospitalizations and caused more than 100 deaths annually.
Although chickenpox symptoms are “usually mild in children,” they “may be life-threatening to adults and people of any age with weak immune systems” as well as pregnant women and newborn babies. Complications may include pneumonia, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), transverse myelitis (inflammation along the spinal cord) and death.
My memories of chickenpox include lying in a bathtub of warm water, crying, and lots of Calamine lotion. Almost all Americans born on or before 1980 have had chickenpox, even if they were too young to remember it now.
The varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox remains in the body’s nerve tissues after the infection. Although it is dormant, it can return later in life as shingles. Consequently, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that adults 50 years and older be vaccinated with Shingrix.
Vaccines help develop immunity by imitating an infection, which causes the immune system to produce T-lymphocytes and antibodies. Minor symptoms like a fever may accompany vaccination and are a normal response.