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Zoster / Shingles Vaccine - Is it Necessary?

Posted Oct 05 2009 10:03pm
I often get questions about the zoster or shingles vaccine known as ZOSTAVAX. Shingles or zoster is the painful skin condition that typically occurs in older patients and is caused by the chickenpox virus. If you've ever had chickenpox, then you are at risk for developing shingles later in life.

Typical symptoms initially include painful area for a few days which may be related to viral like symptoms of muscle aches, low grade fever, and malaise. The painful area usually is on one side of the body (unilateral) and along a dermatome, a nerve distribution root. The pain can be excruciating and often described as burning and intense. Patients often do not like any clothing to touch the area.

After the pain appears, a few days later a small rash of clear small blisters, known as vesicles, erupted and are typically grouped together on a base of redness. The rash appears on the exact same area of the pain.

The vesicles eventually scab over and over a period of a few weeks and resolve. The pain typically goes away as well but can take longer.

However, in some patients, the pain continues and can be irritating enough that it interferes with people's lives. This condition is known as post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) and is more common in individuals aged 60 and older and who have other chronic illnesses like diabetes.

This is why many patients are worried about shingles / zoster. A friend has suffered from PHN and has made sure everyone they know get the vaccine to decrease the risk of developing shingles and then potentially PHN.

So how good in the vaccine? Should you get it? How common is shingles?

It depends.

From the vaccine insert of ZOSTAVAX

The rate of getting zoster is WITHOUT the vaccine:
10.8 per 1000 people per year - aged 60 -69
11.4 per 1000 people per year - age 70-79
12.2 per 1000 people per year - age 80 and older.

This means about 1 percent of the population aged 60 and up will develop shingles annually.

The rate of getting zoster is with the vaccine
3.9 per 1000 people per year - aged 60 -69
6.7 per 1000 people per year - age 70-79
9.9 per 1000 people per year - age 80 and older.

Note the decrease of those developing shingles age 60 to 69, but that the vaccine's ability to prevent shingles diminishes. This isn't due to the vaccine per se, but the immune system's ability to mount a response. As we get older, the immune system is less effective.

As a result the vaccine effectiveness is as follows:

Effectiveness of Zoster vaccine is
64% for pt aged 60-69
41% pt age 70-79, and
18% for those 80 and older.

Also from the package insert although the vaccine did decrease the rate of PHN due to decreasing cases of shingles, other complications of shingles like zoster around the eye, pain, and scarring from the rash were unchanged.

ZOSTAVAX is only indicated for people 60 years and older. Some patients cannot get the vaccine so check with your doctor.

It is covered under Medicare Part D.

More at the CDC website.
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