Over 500,000 Americans get the painful illness shinglesshingles every year. But that could be changing.
In May 2006, the FDA approved the first shingles vaccine -- called Zostavax --
for people 60 and older.
"It's a very important vaccine," says Robert H. Dworkin, PhD, a professor in
the department of anesthesiology at the University of Rochester Medical Center
in Rochester, N.Y. "It cuts the risk of developing shingles in half."
While shingles could be treated with antiviral drugs to lessen its impact,
up until now, doctors had no way to prevent it.
Shingles can be painful in itself, but some of its complications are worse.
About 20% to 30% of people who get it go on to develop severe neurological pain
called postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN. It can last for months, years, or the
rest of a person's life.
Shingles is a disease that primarily affects older people. So a shingles
vaccine could make a huge difference as baby boomers reach their sixties.
However, because the vaccine has only just been approved, there are still
many unknowns. Researchers don't know whether the vaccine is safe for people
under sixty. And it's unclear how much coverage insurance companies -- and
MedicareMedicare -- will provide for it.
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes
chickenpoxchickenpox. The problem is that once you get the
virus, it may not go away. It just lies dormant. Then, if your immune system
weakens -- because of illness, medication, or age -- the virus can become
active again. The very same infection that gave you chickenpox as a toddler can
give you shingles seventy years later.
The illness causes a painful rash that usually appears in a band or belt on
the body. (The word has nothing to do with what's on your roof: it comes from
the Latin word for "belt.") If the pain lasts for at least four months after
the shingles rash appeared, a person is diagnosed with PHN.
The Zostavax vaccine contains a live but weakened version of the virus. This
allows your immune system the chance to "learn" to fight the virus with no risk
"The vaccine is really just a triple dose of the chickenpox vaccine," says
Donald H. Gilden, MD, chair of the department of neurology at the University of
Colorado School of Medicine in Denver. He says that it doesn't seem to have any
significant risks. "The minor side effects included things like itching and
redness," he says, "and they were more than outweighed by the benefits."
It's unclear how long the vaccine's effects will last. Gilden believes that
its immunity may last decades. Dworkin is less sure.
"All we know is that it protects people for four to five years," he tells
WebMD. "In the long run, people might need booster shots. We don't know