Background. Approximately 15% of recipients of live attenuated varicella vaccine may develop mild breakthrough varicella months to years after immunization. Although some vaccinees will develop zoster, it is less common in recipients of vaccine than in those who have had natural varicella.
Objective. To determine the varicella-zoster virus (VZV) strain responsible for breakthrough varicella and zoster in recipients of varicella vaccine.
Methods. A PCR assay capable of distinguishing wild-type from vaccine strain VZV was performed on samples from skin lesions from vaccinees with breakthrough varicella and zoster.
Results. All of 57 vaccinees with breakthrough varicella, clinically diagnosed on the basis of a generalized maculopapular or vesicular rash, had wild-type VZV infection based on analysis of viral DNA. The Oka vaccine strain of VZV was not identified in any of these cases. In contrast, in 32 patients with zosteriform rashes, the vaccine strain was identified in 22 samples, and the wild-type strain was identified in 10 samples.
Conclusions. Wild-type virus was identified in all generalized rashes occurring after the immediate 6-week postvaccination period. When reactivation of vaccine strain occurred, it presented as typical zoster. We find no evidence that reactivation of vaccine virus occurs with the clinical picture of generalized rash.