Estimation of the burden of varicella in Europe before the introduction of universal childhood immunization

Margarita Riera-Montes*, Kaatje Bollaerts, Ulrich Heininger, Niel Hens, Giovanni Gabutti, Angel Gil, Bayad Nozad, Grazina Mirinaviciute, Elmira Flem, Audrey Souverain, Thomas Verstraeten, Susanne Hartwig

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Varicella is generally considered a mild disease. Disease burden is not well known and country-level estimation is challenging. As varicella disease is not notifiable, notification criteria and rates vary between countries. In general, existing surveillance systems do not capture cases that do not seek medical care, and most are affected by underreporting and underascertainment. We aimed to estimate the overall varicella disease burden in Europe to provide critical information to support decision-making regarding varicella vaccination. Methods: We conducted a systematic literature review to identify all available epidemiological data on varicella IgG antibody seroprevalence, primary care and hospitalisation incidence, and mortality. We then developed methods to estimate age-specific varicella incidence and annual number of cases by different levels of severity (cases in the community, health care seekers in primary care and hospitals, and deaths) for all countries belonging to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) region and Switzerland. Results: In the absence of universal varicella immunization, the burden of varicella would be substantial with a total of 5.5 million (95% CI: 4.7-6.4) varicella cases occurring annually across Europe. Variation exists between countries but overall the majority of cases (3 million; 95% CI: 2.7-3.3) would occur in children <5 years. Annually, 3-3.9 million patients would consult a primary care physician, 18,200-23,500 patients would be hospitalised, and 80 varicella-related deaths would occur (95% CI: 19-822). Conclusions: Varicella disease burden is substantial. Most cases occur in children <5 years old but adults require hospitalisation more often and are at higher risk of death. This information should be considered when planning and evaluating varicella control strategies. A better understanding of the driving factors of country-specific differences in varicella transmission and health care utilization is needed. Improving and standardizing varicella surveillance in Europe, as initiated by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), is important to improve data quality to facilitate inter-country comparison.

Original languageEnglish
Article number353
JournalBMC Infectious Diseases
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 18 May 2017
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 The Author(s).


  • Disease burden
  • Europe
  • Varicella


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