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HEALTHWATCH / CHICKEN POX : Rash of Cases : Some doctors say this is the season for the contagious viral infection that afflicts children and adults.


Folks at the Clinicas del Camino Real health-care facility in Oxnard are seeing plenty of it. At the Conejo Free Clinic in Thousand Oaks they aren't seeing any of it. Some doctors say it's the season for it. Others say it really has no season.

Suffice to say, it --the predominantly childhood illness known as chicken pox--is tough to pin down.

"Chicken pox will go through cycles, in the wintertime and again in early summer," said Dr. Robert Ryan, a Ventura pediatrician who has seen an increase in cases lately. "Here we are, late winter--early spring, and that's exactly when we see our peaks."

Simi Valley pediatrician Stewart Brooks agreed that chicken pox is more common in the spring, but said in Southern California it's more of a year-round illness. "I think a lot of viral infections are like that," he said.

As far as medical clinics go, Chris Velasco of Clinicas del Camino said the facility has seen at least one case of chicken pox each day for the past few weeks. Gili Moreno, a nurse at the Santa Paula Clinic, reported five or six cases in the last three weeks. And Sharron Baird, director of the Thousand Oaks clinic, hasn't seen a single case in that time period.

So what gives?

"I did a study in New York, and March was the peak month. Out here it's probably the same," said Dr. Philip Brunell, chief of pediatrics-infectious diseases at Ceders-Sinai Medical Center. "It'll be all over the place. It's very contagious. It's just a matter of time."

Sounds ominous, particularly if you're not fond of itchy rashes, aches, fever and the overall miserable feeling associated with the viral infection. Ryan said that at its onset, chicken pox can be mistaken for some other virus. "But once the little blisters appear," he said, "you can't screw it up. They rapidly weep, burst open, and scab." Ryan said chicken pox sufferers are typically contagious for five or six days, until all blisters have crusted.

"Once it hits, you try to make the kids as comfortable as possible," he said. "A lot of people use symptomatic things, like Calamine lotion, or Benedryl sometimes to make it not itch so bad." Ibuprofen or acetaminophen are suggested for aches.

Prescription drugs are also available. An oral antiviral medicine known as Acyclovir can be taken within 24 hours of the appearance of the chicken pox rash to lessen the severity of the symptoms. It is supposed to reduce healing time, lessen chance of fever and cut down on lesions.

As far as preventive measures, a chicken pox antibody called VZIG can now be given to those exposed to the virus, particularly people considered high risk--newborns, and pregnant women and other adults.

"It's very effective, but very costly," Brooks said. "It could cost a couple of hundred dollars." Brooks said the immunoglobulin is most effective within 48 hours of exposure to the virus, but can work up to 96 hours after exposure. The virus has a 14- to 16-day incubation period.

According to Ryan, a chicken pox vaccine could be available in about a year. "But right now we don't know how long the immunity will last," he said. Though the number of cases of childhood chicken pox could decrease because of the vaccine, Ryan said some doctors fear that the immunity would run out and that there would be an increase in adult cases. Though chicken pox is uncommon in adults, when they do contract it, the symptoms are usually more severe.

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