To estimate the impact of antiviral therapy and prophylaxis on the natural course of the infection, 288 cases of varicella in children with cancer were reviewed. Among 127 patients with untreated infections, the overall mortality rate was 7%. Varicella-zoster virus pneumonitis developed in 28% of the untreated patients and was associated with a 25% mortality rate. Pneumonitis was much more likely to develop in patients with acute leukemia than in those with other malignancies (32% v 19%). Similarly, deaths due to pneumonitis were restricted to patients with acute leukemia. Lymphopenia (absolute lymphocyte count <500/µL) was significantly associated with varicella-zoster virus pneumonitis and a higher fatality rate among patients with this complication. Both acyclovir and adenine arabinoside, administered to 18 and 28 patients, respectively, stopped the progression of skin lesions; however, pneumonitis developed in none of the acyclovir recipients after two days of treatment, compared with 29% of the adenine arabinoside recipients (P = .03). Passive immunization in 45 children who subsequently had varicella was associated with an 11% incidence of varicella-zoster virus pneumonitis. Despite passive immunization of approximately 150 children, the attack rate of varicella at our institution remains unchanged. Results of this study demonstrate the efficacy of antiviral therapy and passive immunization in patients with childhood cancer and varicella, but prevention of the infection will require a universal vaccine.

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