The FDA has recently licensed a new vaccine to reduce older Americans’ risk of developing shingles. The New England Journal of Medicine calls the vaccine a newer, more powerful version of the ‘chicken pox vaccine’, and when administered to adults over the age of 60, it will cut the chance of getting shingles by 50%.
Shingles (Herpes Zoster) is a very painful disease that is caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox. In people who have had chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in nerve tissue in the region where nerves that supply the head, neck and trunk meet and connect to the spinal cord. The virus can reappear as shingles several decades later, as people age.
Shingles is estimated to affect 2 of every 10 people sometime in their lifetime. More than 90% of Americans have had chickenpox and these are the ones that can later get shingles. Half of all people living to age 85 will develop shingles during their lifetime.
Shingles comes as a cluster of blisters that develop on one side of the body. It causes severe pain that can last, in some cases, for years. Most commonly, shingles is thought of as just a painful rash, but in about one out of eight sufferers of the virus, the condition causes severe chronic pain and hypersensitivity to temperature and touch. Even a slight breeze or the touch of their clothing can be excruciatingly painful. Narcotics are sometimes prescribed for this horrible pain, but there is currently no reliable way of permanently alleviating it.
In people who have had a bout of shingles, most describe it as one of the most painful experiences of their lives. The new vaccine can help prevent shingles, which affects many older people and often results in this chronic pain. It is estimated that up to 50% of shingles patients older than 50 years of age will develop chronic pain after having the attack. This persistent, long-term nerve pain is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN).
The live virus vaccine, made by Merck & Co., Inc., is called Zostavax, and the vaccine boosts immunity against the varicella-zoster virus that causes shingles. Although it will not cure shingles, when given to people over the age of 60, it will either prevent an outbreak or lessen the severity of the outbreak.
The chicken pox vaccine was first given in 1995. Children who have been vaccinated against chicken pox may still get shingles later in life, but it is thought that the weakened virus used in the chicken pox vaccine, is less likely to reactivate and cause shingles later as does the freely circulating wild-type of the virus that causes chicken pox. Also, children who have not been vaccinated against chicken pox may get them if they are exposed to someone with shingles.
Shingles may be more common in the elderly because they have generalized waning immunity. This new, more potent version of the chicken pox virus boosts the immune response of older adults who are already harboring the virus. The new vaccine comes at a most beneficial time, because over the next thirty years, as the baby-boomers age, the number of people destined to get shingles will increase dramatically. Zostavax promises protection from this very painful disease.