Shingles vaccine linked to lower disease risk

Shot for older people appears to lessen incidence and severity

The vaccination for shingles isn’t foolproof but it beats the no-shot alternative, reducing the risk of the painful, itching disease by more than half, a new study suggests. What’s more, people who get shingles despite being vaccinated seem more likely to get milder cases, researchers report in the Jan. 12 Journal of the American Medical Association.

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster after the virus that causes it, shows up as skin blisters and a rash, often on the torso. The pain and itch can last for months or longer. Antiviral drugs can be prescribed for the symptoms, says study coauthor Hung Fu Tseng, an epidemiologist at the Kaiser Permanente Department of Research and Evaluation in Pasadena, Calif.

The shingles vaccine was approved in 2006 for people age 60 and over. In the new study, Tseng and his colleagues analyzed records of more than 300,000 people in that age group, one-fourth of whom had received the vaccination since its approval. Vaccine recipients were 55 percent less likely to get shingles than were the others.

People who got vaccinated were also nearly two-thirds less likely to be hospitalized for a case of shingles than were unvaccinated people. Those who got the shot also were about two-thirds less apt to have a complication called ophthalmic herpes in which the rash invades the eyes or other parts of the face. These findings suggest the vaccine limited the severity of cases that did occur, Tseng says.

Shingles can occur in anyone who has had chicken pox in the past. Both diseases result from the varicella-zoster virus, a herpesvirus that hides out in nerve tissues and can re-emerge at a later age as shingles. At least half of cases occur in people over 60, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show. Since chicken pox was extremely common before the advent of widespread vaccination for it in 1995 in the United States (SN: 1/29/11, p. 9), roughly 99 percent of adults in the United States have been exposed to the chicken pox/shingles virus, Tseng notes.

The shingles vaccine, which is distinct from the chicken pox vaccine, is sold as Zostavax by its manufacturer, Merck & Co. Inc. The company reported preliminary data in 2010 suggesting that people in their 50s receiving the shot had 70 percent fewer cases of shingles than unvaccinated people. Final results from that analysis are not yet available, but Merck has asked federal regulators to set the recommended age for vaccination at 50 and up.

The benefits of vaccinating a middle-aged population might be substantial, since people in their 50s are likely to be working, and the cost from lost productivity due to shingles would be great in that age group, says clinical virologist Myron Levin of the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver. “When people get shingles, they tend to take time off work.”

More Stories from Science News on Health & Medicine