Shingles is a viral disease most common among older adults. A group of expert advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that everyone age 60 and older get a new vaccine against shingles.
The vaccine was approved by the FDA in May. In studies, it reduced the incidence of shingles by 50 percent. Even in people who got the disease, most of those who were vaccinated experienced less pain.
And the CDC's Dr. Rafael Harpaz says the disease can be extremely painful. "It can last for months and sometimes even years. It can be really life shattering.
"I've heard stories of vibrant 62-year-old tennis-playing persons that end up being housebound and suicidal because of severe pain and not being able to interact socially and so forth."
Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox in children. It remains in the body for decades, sort of sleeping in nerve cells along the spinal column.
According to Harpaz, "the virus that causes chickenpox stays in your body throughout life for reasons we don't really understand. And for reasons we don't understand, it reactivates and comes to your skin down one particular nerve to the surface of your skin where it will cause a rash and pain on one side of your body in one area."
It almost appears as a 'shingle' along the body, hence the name. The lesions are blistery and very painful. They can travel to the face, and into the eyes — where they can impair vision and even cause blindness. Shingles is most likely to occur in later years, when the immune system has declined.
That's why the vaccine is recommended for everyone 60 and older. Dr. William Schaffner is chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt Medical School in Nashville, Tenn. In this older age group, he says, pretty much everyone has been exposed to the virus.
"If we look at everyone who's over age 60, for all intents and purposes, 100 percent — even if you don't remember having had it — literally everyone age 60 and over has been exposed in their past lives to the chickenpox virus."
It's not clear yet whether individuals between 30 and 60 could benefit from the vaccine. Nor is it known whether children who are vaccinated against chickenpox will eventually need the shingles vaccine as well. The vaccine is not recommended, at this point, for people with compromised immune systems — those infected with HIV, for example. But it is recommended for people who have already had shingles.
The bottom line, says Schaffner, is that "the vaccine is a major public health advance" for the 60-plus age group.
"If you reach age 85," he says, "almost half of people will have experienced shingles at some point in their lives. It's really quite extraordinary. There are 1 million cases of shingles that occur in the U.S. each year."
The vaccine costs about $160. Some private health insurers have told health officials they will cover the cost and include the benefit for their members. Medicare officials are also working to figure out how to provide the vaccine.