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Today, Your Health takes up pain and new ways to soothe it and prevent it. Oh, good. First shingles, a viral disease most common among older adults. Some expert advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending that everybody aged 60 and older get the new vaccine against shingles.
NPR's Patricia Neighmond reports.
PATRICIA NEIGHMOND: The vaccine was approved by the FDA in May. In studies it reduced the incidence of shingles by 50 percent. Even in people who go the disease, those who were vaccinated experienced less pain. And the CDC's Dr. Rafael Harpaz says the disease can be extremely painful.
Dr. RAFAEL HARPAZ (CDC): And it could last for months and sometimes even years. It can actually 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.
NEIGHMOND: Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox in kids. It remains in the body for decades, sort of sleeping in nerve cells along the spinal column.
Dr. HARPAZ: The virus that causes chickenpox stays in your body throughout life for reasons that 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 in one side of your body in one area.
NEIGHMOND: Almost appearing 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 during older age when the immune system has declined. That's why the vaccine is recommended for everyone aged 60 and older.
Dr. William Schaffner is chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt Medical School in Nashville, Tennessee. In this older age group, he says, pretty much everyone has been exposed to the virus.
Dr. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER (Vanderbilt Medical School): If we look at everyone who's over age 60, that's for all intents and purposes 100 percent. Even though you may not remember having had it, literally everyone aged 60 and over has been exposed in their past lives to the chickenpox virus.
NEIGHMOND: It's not clear yet whether individuals between, say, 30 and 60, could benefit from the vaccine, nor is it known whether kids who were 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. And bottom line, Schaffner says, the vaccine is a major public health advance for the 60-plus age group.
Dr. SCHAFFNER: If you reached age 85 - and we all hope to - almost half of people will have experienced shingles at some point in their lives. It's really quite extraordinary. There are a million cases of shingles that occur in the United States each year. Astounding.
NEIGHMOND: The vaccine costs about $160. Private insurers have told health officials they'll cover the cost and include that benefit for their members. Medicare officials are also working to figure out how to provide the vaccine. Patricia Neighmond, NPR News.
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