RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
ROBERT SMITH, host:
And I'm Robert Smith. In Your Health today, growing food with healthier flavonoids. Mmm, flavonoids. But first, deciding who should get a vaccine to prevent shingles. Before a vaccine for chickenpox came along in the 1960s, virtually all children used to get the itchy red spots. Now doctors see more and more effects of chickenpox in older people in the form of a painful disease called shingles. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The chickenpox vaccine first became available in 1995, not the 1960s.]
NPR's Richard Knox reports.
RICHARD KNOX: Viola Stover's bout of shingles started a few weeks ago. She talked about it yesterday from her backyard in League City, Texas.
Ms. VIOLA STOVER: It started out with an itching, and I thought, well, you know, maybe I'm allergic to something. And it just seemed like it got worse and worse.
KNOX: Then blisters erupted on her back. And the pain started.
Ms. STOVER: The pain is like having a jagged knife in your chest and just turning it. I mean, it's the worst pain I think a person could ever go through.
KNOX: Patients tell doctors the pain of shingles is worse than giving birth, worse than a heart attack. For Stover, the pain brought back memories from childhood.
Ms. STOVER: I watched my grandmother - bless her heart - suffer with it. And I watched my mother suffer. My mom would scream with pain.
KNOX: In fact, Stover blames her mother's death from alcoholic liver disease on shingles pain that never went away.
Ms. STOVER: My mom detested alcohol. She never allowed it in the house. But my mom was the type ... she never would take medication. I know for a fact my mom was hurting so bad that that's why she turned to alcohol.
KNOX: Dermatologist Stephen Tyring was struck by how often shingles plagued several generations of the same family.
Dr. STEPHEN TYRING (Dermatologist): We started asking people, have you had blood relatives with shingles?
KNOX: That turned into a study at the University of Texas - the first to look at some families' propensity to get shingles. The results appear this month in the Archives of Dermatology. The study continues.
Dr. TYRING: Almost half the patients now have said, yes, I've had a relative or relatives. And we found that if it were a first-degree relative - a parent, sibling or child - that their chances appeared to be about doubled. But if it was, you know, two first-degree relatives, it seemed to be quadrupled.
KNOX: That's because some people's immune systems are genetically predisposed to shingles.
Shingles is a nerve infection caused by the chickenpox virus, Varicella zoster. The chickenpox rash goes away but the virus doesn't. It hides out in nerves in the spine. When immunity dips later in life - because of stress, disease or just normal aging - the virus becomes painfully active again.
The incidence of shingles is rising - not just among the elderly, but in younger adults too.
Dr. TYRING: The theory is as more and more children get vaccinated against chickenpox, there's less wild-type chickenpox around.
KNOX: So children don't bring the virus home, and parents and grandparents don't get re-exposed to it. That used to act like a booster shot. Now there's a relatively new vaccine that does the same thing, but very few people have had it. This month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged people over 60 to get it.
Merck makes the vaccine. The company is funding some of Dr. Tyring's research in hopes the vaccine will be approved by the FDA for people in their 50s.
Meanwhile, Viola Stover is lobbying her friends.
Ms. STOVER: I'm telling everyone to please, for God's sakes, get the vaccine, because if they don't they will suffer.
KNOX: And, no, Merck did not pay her to say that.
Medicare and private insurers are beginning to cover the vaccine. It costs about $160.
Richard Knox, NPR News.