The world’s first vaccine against the painful and debilitating shingles virus has been released. This is great news, particularly for the elderly community, as the risk and severity of the condition increases markedly with age.
Shingles (aka herpes-zoster) is caused by a common virus that many of us have had as children: chickenpox (varicella-zoster). After we have been exposed to this virus, it stays dormant in our system. When the virus reactivates, the infection is known as “shingles.” It appears as a tender rash, then breaks out into red fluid-filled blisters on the skin. The pain can be excruciating.
For 50% of shingles sufferers, the painful rash is only half the story. If the virus reactivates, because the virus lives near the nerves in the spinal cord, many people experience a condition known as “postherpetic neuralgia”, or PHN. This is an extremely unpleasant acute neuropathic pain that can stay with the sufferer for months or sometimes even years after the virus has become dormant again. It is a throbbing, burning nerve pain that usually occurs on the parts of the skin that were worst affected by the original shingles outbreak.
News of a vaccine for this debilitating condition, therefore, has been welcomed by many. Approximately 97% of Australians will have come in contact with the varicella-zoster virus by the time they are 30 years old, suggesting that the vaccine could provide widespread benefit for the community.
The vaccine is not available for everyone though. Currently, the shingles vaccine is available in Australia for individuals aged over 50 years, and for the prevention of shingles and the painful postherpetic neuralgia associated with it for those aged 60 or older.
About the vaccine
The vaccine, called Zostavax, was made in the US and although it has been approved by the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) for those over 50 years of age, it is yet to be assessed by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee to be included in the National Immunisation Program, or to be put on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Schedule. This means that it is currently quite expensive. A single vaccination could cost up to $250.
The vaccine is usually kept in the fridge at your local GP. It is injected once only, with the objective of boosting the immune system. It is not intended for symptomatic relief for a patient with a current bout of shingles or its associated pain but to be used in advance as a preventative measure.
Statistically speaking, it’s rare to get repeated doses of shingles like people with cold sores can experience (which is in the same herpes family). The idea is to inject people in their 50’s with the vaccine so they avoid suffering a bout of shingles in their later years, which could be severely detrimental to their health.
According to Associate Professor John Litt of Flinders University, “The impact of shingles on quality of life is comparable to other chronic diseases such as heart failure, type II diabetes and depression.” He also warns that there is no way to predict who will develop shingles, or when, and suggests that in the absence of a cure, the vaccination against shingles was considered an important public health measure.
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