Experimental Vaccine Proves Effective Against Shingles

Anyone who's ever had chicken pox, and that's nearly every adult in the U.S. today, can develop the painful disease called shingles. Around a million Americans a year do. But there's hope. Researchers are reporting in the New England Journal of Medicine that an experimental vaccine cuts the risk of shingles.

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Anyone who's ever had chicken pox can develop the painful disease called shingles. Around a million Americans a year do. But there's hope. In today's New England Journal of Medicine, researchers are reporting that an experimental vaccine cuts the risk. NPR's Richard Knox has details.

RICHARD KNOX reporting:

Allie Clark Simpson(ph) of Franklin, Kentucky, got chicken pox when she was eight years old; that was in 1917. She recalls chicken pox was no big deal.

Ms. ALLIE CLARK SIMPSON: I hardly knew I had them. There was just one little place they broke out in. Well, I remember what my mother done. She washed it with lye soap, 'cause that's back years ago. She just washed it with lye soap, and it just got well right straight.

KNOX: But many years later the chicken pox virus came back to plague Allie Simpson.

Ms. SIMPSON: I had a good healthy life till I had the shingles when I was 90. That's been nearly six years ago, and it was horrible. And it just got itchy, itchy, itchy, until you just had to claw all the time. It just hurt and itched, hurt and itched. And you couldn't be still; you couldn't sit (unintelligible) hurting.

KNOX: The pain of shingles is something most people never know and don't appreciate. Stephen Tyring of the University of Texas in Houston knows. He's treated thousands of people with shingles. He says the pain is in the same league as childbirth and heart attacks.

Dr. STEPHEN TYRING (University of Texas, Houston): Veterans of various wars have told me it's more painful than their bullet wounds or shrapnel wounds. But perhaps the most memorable statement is a little old lady who told me that she had had 11 children and then shingles. She said, `I'd rather have 11 more children than having shingles again.'

KNOX: Victims often describe it as like a burning hot poker, a knife twisted in the flesh or buckets of fire. Worst of all, in some people, like Allie Simpson, the pain can linger for months or years. Michael Oxman of the VA San Diego Healthcare System tested the new shingles vaccine. He says some people are literally imprisoned by the disease.

Dr. MICHAEL OXMAN (VA San Diego Healthcare System): There are people, as we speak now, who are sitting at home trapped in their house or their apartment because they can't put a shirt on. Just the touch of the shirt is just too uncomfortable to bear.

KNOX: To test the new vaccine, Oxman and his colleagues recruited nearly 39,000 people over 60 who never had shingles. Half got a single shot of the experimental vaccine. After several years...

Dr. OXMAN: We reduced the occurrence of shingles, the incidence of shingles, by 51 percent. And those who were vaccinated but got shingles had their severity of shingles markedly reduced.

KNOX: On top of that, the number of vaccinated people who had long-lasting, post-shingles nerve pain, like Allie Simpson's, was reduced by two-thirds. Side effects were rare and mild. The vaccine is similar to one already used in children, but the adult version needs to be stronger. It's under review by the Food and Drug administration. A decision might come early next year. Again, the VA's Michael Oxman.

Dr. OXMAN: If this vaccine were deployed in everybody in the United States who's 60 years of age or over, you would expect to have over a quarter of a million, over 250,000, fewer cases of shingles. And then in the other 250,000, there'd be a marked reduction in their severity.

KNOX: Oxman says his phone has been ringing off the hook since researchers told study participants who got the placebo that they could get free vaccine. Merck, which sponsored the study, won't say how much the vaccine will cost. But even if it's affordable, Stephen Tyring, the Houston specialist, is more skeptical than Oxman that seniors will clamor for a shot to prevent shingles.

Dr. TYRING: I wonder if very many people over age 50 or 60 can be convinced to get vaccinated against shingles when, in many cases, their own grandchildren are not receiving the vaccines that are recommended.

KNOX: Still, doctors are intrigued. `Just imagine,' one specialist says, `a vaccine against chronic pain.' Richard Knox, NPR News.

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