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Vaccine For Shingles Ailment Effective -- And Seldom Used, Study Says

Vaccine For Shingles Ailment Effective -- And Seldom Used, Study Says [The Miami Herald]

From Miami Herald (FL) (January 12, 2011)

Jan. 12--Jeffrey Dorn is an amateur gardener, so at first he thought the blisters on his left thigh were caused by fire ant bites. But when the blisters became "much, much, much" worse, he stopped applying Calamine lotion and saw his doctor.

He had shingles, a painful disease that attacks mostly people older than 50.

"It was horrendous," he said. "Like someone holding a match to your skin in 48 places, 24 hours a day."

For Dorn, a 69-year-old retired Xerox exec from Miami, the disease waned after eight weeks of "industrial-strength" prescription pain killers. For some, it can become chronic for years, even causing eye problems and, rarely, blindness.

But a new national study says people who get a little-known shingles vaccination can cut their risk of the debilitating disease by 55 percent. It’s a Kaiser Permanente review of 300,000 people’s medical records published Tuesday in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Zostavax was introduced by Merck & Co., Inc., in 2006, but only about 10 percent of Americans who need it -- those 60 and over -- have been vaccinated, the study says. Most aren’t aware it exists. Also, a vaccination costs as much as $219.

Medicare will pay for the vaccine through ts Part D prescription plan. Some private insurers will pay; others won’t.


The vaccine is widely available in South Florida at county health departments and private medical offices.

"We offer it in our clinics for people 60 and over," said Lydia Sandoval, immunization program director for the Miami-Dade Health Department. "The problem is, it’s expensive. A lot of private doctors are writing prescriptions and sending their patients to us because we can offer it a little cheaper since we’re nonprofit."

Even at Dade and Broward clinics, it’s $190. And there’s no price break for low-income residents because the department doesn’t have funding for that, Sandoval says. Those seeking more information can call 305-324-2400 in Miami-Dade and 954-467-4705 in Broward.

Last year, the Broward Health Department administered 78 shingles vaccinations in 2010, but it does not track vaccinations by private doctors, department spokeswoman Candy Sims said.

Treating shingles quickly -- within 48 hours -- eases pain and lessens the chance of it becoming chronic, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drugs for the diseases include acyclovir, valacyclovir and famciclovir.

Shingles strikes 1 million Americans each year, the CDC says. Chances of getting it are about 30 percent over a lifetime, usually after age 50. Its aftereffects, including debilitating pain, scarring and chronic eye problems, can go on for years in 10 percent to 18 percent of those who develop it.

It occurs among people who had chickenpox as children, and is caused by the chickenpox virus that has lain dormant for decades being reactivated as the body ages or the immune system weakens. People with HIV or cancer are particularly vulnerable.

Doctors call the disease "herpes zoster." The popular term "shingles" comes from the Latin word "cingulum," or girdle, because the rash often extends partly around the middle of the body.

In the study, Kaiser Permanente, a large, not-for-profit health insurer, checked records of 76,000 vaccinated patients and 227,000 unvaccinated patients in its Southern California region. It said the vaccine’s effectiveness held up after taking into account differences in gender, race, chronic disease and age.


In general, shingles hits only those who had chickenpox as children. Health departments and private doctors offer children’s vaccines against chickenpox. The vaccine is required to enter school.

Sandoval says that even those who believe they never had chickenpox as children should get the shingles vaccine anyway.

"You might have had a mild case and not known it," she says.

Dorn seconds that advice. He says about two months before he got shingles last year, his doctor told him he probably should get a shingles shot.

"I even had the prescription," he says. "But I hadn’t gotten around to getting the shot."

Shingles information is on the CDC website at about/index.html. Type "shingles" into the search box.

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Posted: January 2011