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Following the licensure of the Oka/Merck varicella vaccine in Italy in January 2003, the Sicilian health authorities launched a universal vaccination programme in all nine Local Health Units. A two-cohort vaccination strategy was adopted to minimise the shift of the mean age of varicella occurrence to older age groups, with the goal of vaccinating with one dose at least 80% of children in their second year of life and 50% of susceptible adolescents in their 12th year of life. Two studies were implemented in parallel to closely monitor vaccination coverage as well as varicella incidence. Overall, the programme achieved its target, with 87.5% vaccine coverage for the birth cohort 2005 and 90.2% for adolescents born in 1995 and 1996. Varicella surveillance data obtained from a total of 28,188 children (0-14 years-old) monitored by family paediatricians showed a decline in incidence rates from 95.7 (95% confidence interval (CI): 72.2-126.8) for 1,000 person-years (PY) in 2004 to 9.0 (95% CI: 6.4-12.6) for 1,000 PY in 2007. In Europe, the only similar experience is the routine childhood varicella vaccination programme in Germany that started in 2004 with a single dose at the age of 11-14 months. The two-cohort universal vaccination programme implemented in Sicily, as well as the network for the surveillance study, can offer a model to other European countries that are considering introducing universal childhood varicella vaccination.


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