Chickenpox and how it kills
Chickenpox can be fatal, as this family's tragic case reveals. Jillian Lewis speaks to a family whose lives have been shattered by this virus.
Chicken pox

Talk to Chris Kokegei and you can feel the raw emotion. The heartache is still fresh. In 2009 he lost his son Michael at the age of seven to a virus that many people consider to be a childhood rite of passage: the chickenpox. “Michael’s death destroyed us,” says Chris. What’s worse is the family had no warning, no time to say goodbye – Michael went from playing at the beach and being active and happy, to being unconscious on the bathroom floor and needing CPR.

Just a few spots

“It was a Friday and we had been to the beach. Afterwards I took Michael and Mathew who were seven and nine at the time, for a walk to the video store. It was Michael’s turn to pick a movie,” says Chris. When they arrived home, Chris sent them for a bath before dinner. When he went up to check on them, Mathew said Michael had some spots on his stomach. “I had a look and there were no more than five spots – they looked like a hive or group of mozzie bites,” says Chris. “I spun him around to check for others and asked him how he felt and he said fine. Then he gave me a big hug and kiss and told me he loved me,” said Chris.

Chris went downstairs and about five to 10 minutes later Mathew came down. “I called out for Michael to get out of the bath, but there was no response. I figured he was just playing, so I sent Mathew up to tell him to hurry up and get out,” says Chris. When Mathew screamed, Chris and his wife ran up to see what was wrong. “Mick was just slumped over in the bathtub,” says Chris. His head wasn’t under the water and he hadn’t drowned, but he’d stopped breathing and he had no pulse. Chris and his wife, Wendy, dragged Michael out of the bathtub and starting doing CPR while their two older daughters rang emergency services and went to get the neighbour. “The kids watched as we did 20 minutes of CPR on their brother until the paramedics arrived,” said Chris. “One minute Michael was laughing and giving me a kiss – we had no idea what had happened,” he says. After regaining a weak pulse, Michael was airlifted to Westmead Children’s Hospital.

“I’ve got nothing but praise for the police and the paramedics and the hospital staff – nobody knew what was wrong. They did a million tests on him,” says Chris.

Waiting on a diagnosis

It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon when more spots came out that they thought it might be chickenpox. By late Saturday night Michael still wasn’t responding and on Sunday Michael’s organs started shutting down. At 4:15pm that afternoon, Michael passed away.

It took 18 months for the coroner’s report to confirm that the only thing wrong with Michael was the chickenpox – a vaccine preventable disease.

Michael’s family are devastated. “Losing a child is the cruellest, most horrible thing in the world. Nothing will compare to what our family has been through – now, it’s all about preventing it from happening to anyone else,” says Chris.

Chris and Wendy feel let down by the system. Their three older children had had the chickenpox, but they were unaware that a vaccine had been made available since 2005 and Michael missed out when he went for his routine immunisations. “Had we known that a vaccine was available, we would have taken Michael to get it,” says Chris. This is a family who had listened to the government health warnings for swine flu and meningococcal and had been vaccinated against them. They took health advice when it was given. “It doesn’t need to be government subsidised, people just need to be made aware,” says Chris who says they would have happily paid for their son Michael to get vaccinated.

Free vaccine available in New Zealand

From 1st July 2017, New Zealand children born after 1 April 2016 will be eligible to receive one dose of chickenpox vaccine free at 15 months old. Children turning 11 on or after 1 July 2017 who have never been infected with or previously immunised against chickenpox will also be eligible to receive the free vaccine. Immunisation is available for others, at a cost. Talk to your doctor for more information.

“Occasionally children who have been immunised with one dose still get the chickenpox, but usually this will result in a much milder case of the disease,” says Professor Peter McIntyre, Director for the National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Australia. The vaccine has been available in Australia for several years. “We used to see hundreds of children hospitalised each year with chickenpox complications, but with the vaccine that’s cut back by more than 80 percent,” he explains. Complications associated with the chickenpox virus include secondary bacterial infection, meningitis, encephalitis and pneumonia.

Despite common thinking, it’s not only immune-suppressed children who develop complications. “I’ve met parents of children who have gone through the same heartache as Chris – their child has gone to bed with the chickenpox and died in their sleep – from rapidly developing liver failure,” says Prof McIntyre. For Michael, the only reason the doctors thought the virus took such an aggressive hold was perhaps due to the heat of the bathtub and the activity during the day. “Parents should know that there is no guarantee that their child will cruise through the virus without complications,” says Chris.

This article was written by Jillian Lewis for and has been adapted for

Sources include NZ Ministry of Health.

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Last revised: Monday, 19 June 2017

This article contains general information only and is not intended to replace advice from a qualified health professional.