Cumberland Times-News

April 29, 2012

Shingles vaccination production increases; CDC recommending shot for Americans age 60 and up

Caused by chicken pox virus, pain has been compared to childbirth or kidney stones

Angie Brant
Cumberland Times-News

— CUMBERLAND — Production of the vaccination against shingles has increased this year and the vaccine is being recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for people 60 and older.

One in three Americans will develop shingles, herpes zoster, at some point during their lifetime, according to the CDC.

Caused by the common chicken pox virus, shingles can be painful and difficult to treat. Anyone who has had chicken pox already has the virus in his system. Several factors can cause the dormant virus to flare up, including stress and illness.

Last year, nearly 1 million Americans were diagnosed with shingles, according to the CDC. More than half of these cases were in people 60 years and older.     “Shingles or zoster is a common viral disease manifestation of the varicella zoster virus,” said Dr. William Pope, deputy health officer for Garrett County.

“It is most common in older persons, but can be seen in younger adults. The varicella zoster virus enters the body, even without symptoms, and then begins a latent state in nerve tissue. It then can emerge many years later to cause an episode of shingles with severe persistent pain, blisters and eventual scarring. Without preventative treatment, 30 percent of adults will eventually have an episode of this disease.”

The supply of the vaccination was low in 2011, but now health officials hope the availability of the vaccine will reduce the number of incidents. “Zoster virus vaccine has been available for five years now, and has an excellent record of safety and effectiveness in the prevention of shingles with a single injection in persons 60 years of age or older,” Pope said.

“The cost of the vaccine may seem to be high, but the potential prevention of severe disease and pain, with the need for medical visits and costly medications, make the investment well worthwhile. In addition, some Medicare programs and many private insurance plans may cover the expense of the vaccine.”

Shingles usually starts as a painful rash on one side of the face or body, typically on the abdomen, back or face. Many patients report that they experienced a tingling sensation at the site several days prior to the rash appearing. Blisters then form, lasting up to two weeks. Blisters are described as very painful and itchy.

In some cases, patients report a deep pain that persists after the rash has disappeared called postherpetic neuralgia. These symptoms can persist for months or even years. The incidence of shingles and of postherpetic neuralgia rises with increasing age. Treatment for a shingles outbreak includes antiviral medications that help to shorten the symptoms. The sooner antiviral medications are administered, the quicker the recovery time. Patients are also encouraged to use wet compresses, calamine lotion or oatmeal baths to help alleviate discomfort of the rash. Some patients report that the pain from shingles is comparable to childbirth or kidney stones.

 In rare cases, shingles can lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation or even death. The shingles virus can only be spread through direct contact with fluid from the rash blisters, not through sneezing, coughing or other casual contact.

While there is no definitive proof that the vaccination will prevent shingles, early studies indicate a reduced risk for those who have had the vaccination. Research also indicates that people with depressed immune systems are also at greater risk of getting shingles. Typically, patients only have one incident of the outbreak, but rare cases have been reported of patients having shingles two or even three times.

Cindy Mankamyer, immunization nurse at the Garrett County Health Department, said “The shingles vaccine is a safe and effective way to reduce a person’s chances of a shingles outbreak. The recent nationwide shortage of the vaccine is over, so most physician’s offices and health departments should have it available for persons age 60 and older who medically qualify. Locally, we have found the vaccine well-accepted.”

Diane Lee, Garrett County Health Department’s public information officer, said the health department offers the vaccination by appointment and can bill health insurance when applicable. Many insurance plans, including Medicare Part D, cover the cost of the vaccination.

Lee believes an increased level of awareness of the virus, coupled with greater accessibility to the vaccination, has led to a greater number of people being inoculated.

“We are hearing a lot from people who know of someone with shingles and want to do what they can to avoid the painful symptoms,” Lee said.

In addition to primary physician offices and the Garrett County Health Department, several area pharmacies, including Beachy’s in Grants-ville, are offering the shots.

“There seems to be an increase in patients with shingles in the Grantsville area, and as a result, it is bringing the importance of getting a vaccination to those patients and their families. In my opinion, it is worth getting this once-in-a-lifetime shot,” Gerry Beachy, owner, said.

Lee said the vaccination produces few, if any side effects, noting that she has only seen localized soreness at the site of injection.

“The benefits far outweigh the side effects,” she added.

Contact Angie Brant at abrant@times-news.com.