DAVID GREENE, HOST:
If you had chickenpox as a child, you are at risk for shingles. That virus can hide in the body over a lifetime. And, for reasons that are still not completely clear, the virus can suddenly activate causing a painful, blistery rash. A shingles vaccine is available, but it wears off over time. In Your Health this morning, hope for a new, more effective shingles vaccine. Here's NPR's Patti Neighmond.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: The pain from a shingles rash can be severe. But it's the pain that lingers long after the rash goes away that can be really debilitating. Dr. Leonard Friedland is a vaccine researcher.
LEONARD FRIEDLAND: It can cause burning and shooting and stabbing pains. People can't sleep well. They can't work.
NEIGHMOND: As people age, the risk of shingles increases. Health officials recommend people over 60 get the vaccine. It prevents two thirds of shingles cases. But effectiveness wears off over time, and that's why the pharmaceutical company Friedland works for, GSK, decided to develop a new vaccine. It's 97 percent effective regardless of age.
FRIEDLAND: So be it 50 to 60, or 60 to 70, or 70 or older - this high degree of efficacy was there for all ages, and this is the first time this has been seen for any vaccine to prevent shingles.
NEIGHMOND: What's different about the new vaccine is something called an adjuvant - a chemical added to the vaccine with the sole job of waking up the immune system. And that makes a big difference for older people, says Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt Medical Center.
WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: As individuals age, just as they become more physically frail, so does their immune system. So to have this adjuvant kind of kick start the immune system so that it responds better to the vaccine and makes better protection, that's a real innovation.
NEIGHMOND: It's not a new technology, but Schaffner says it's likely to be used more in vaccines as the population ages and still needs protection against diseases like shingles and the flu. But the challenge may be getting older people vaccinated in the first place, says Dr. Susan Rehm, an infectious disease specialist at the Cleveland Clinic.
SUSAN REHM: When we talk about shingles vaccine, I would have to say - oh, gosh, maybe 50-50. Some people know about it, some people vaguely know about it, and surprisingly many don't know about it at all.
NEIGHMOND: And even though the vaccine is recommended for people 60 and older, only 24 percent actually get it.
REHM: And that is a low number, but it unfortunately is typical of many adult vaccines. We find that adults are very much under-vaccinated.
NEIGHMOND: One barrier could be cost. The vaccine now on the market runs about $200 or more. Most private insurers pay for it, but some don't. And if you're between 50 and 59 when the risk of shingles begins to increase, you may have to pay the full price yourself even if you have insurance. It's not clear what the new, more effective vaccine will cost. It's still in the research phase and probably won't be approved and available for at least a year. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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