Shingles vaccine important for older people


For Greene County News

JAMESTOWN — Every older adult in America would be rolling up their sleeves to get a shingles vaccination if they truly understood the risk of the disease and its potential for long-term complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Shingles — an extremely painful and debilitating rash that can lead to more serious complications — affects more than one-third of all Americans. Those over the age of 60 are at the highest risk for developing the disease, however, more than half of older adults do not understand its seriousness and complications, the CDC says.

“The disease is very inconvenient and painful and those who get the virus run the risk of developing post-herpetic neuralgia, which is long-term nerve pain,” said Wes Halderman, MD, a family physician at Jamestown Family Medicine. “Shingles that is present near the eye or in the inner ear also poses an additional threat including facial paralysis and nerve damage.”

Shingles is a unique illness since it is actually the reactivation of a disease instead of a new infection. The virus that causes shingles, known as varicella, is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Varicella is a herpes virus and, therefore, once it enters a person’s body it remains there for life. Individuals who become ill with chickenpox will recover, but the varicella virus will remain in their body’s nerve roots.

Healthy individuals with strong immune systems help keep the virus dormant, however, the chances of the varicella virus resurfacing increases as one ages or their immunity wanes. Certain conditions will allow the virus to reactivate and cause it to travel up the nerves until it reaches the skin. The painful and often itchy rash known as shingles is the external sign of the virus.

“Shingles appears along the path of a nerve so that is why we most often see it wrap around one part of a person’s torso or one nerve on the face,” Halderman said.

An individual has to have been previously infected with the varicella virus in order to develop shingles later on in life. That means 95 percent of American adults are currently at risk for developing shingles. And half of those who live to the age of 85 will have had or will get shingles, says the CDC.

What remains to be seen is the impact the chickenpox vaccination will have on the prevalence of shingles in older adults. Since 1995, children have received the chickenpox vaccination. Prior to that, it is estimated that 4 million people became ill with the virus each year, with 150 dying from it. The chickenpox vaccination now provides up to 98 percent protection against the varicella virus and nearly all who receive it are immune from the disease, the CDC said.

“Theoretically, we should see a decrease in the amount of shingles cases because most children never became ill by the primary infection,” Halderman says. “That still remains to be seen, however, because the first generation to receive the vaccination is still so young.”

Today’s older adults were never given the varicella vaccination as a child, which makes it that much more important for them to get the shingles vaccination at the recommended age of 60 or above, Halderman said. Preventing shingles may have a significant impact on an older adult who is already dealing with multiple pre-existing conditions. And while a person can still get shingles after having the vaccination, research has shown that the vaccination drastically reduces the severity of its symptoms.

Those who do become infected by the varicella virus should take precautions. Leave the rash alone by keeping it covered and resisting the urge to scratch it. Diligently wash hands while the rash is present. Until the rash has crusted, avoid contact with pregnant women who have never had the virus or received the vaccine, infants less than 12 months of age, and people with weakened immune systems.

Halderman urges women in their childbearing years who have never been vaccinated or infected by the varicella virus, to get the chickenpox vaccination. Those trying to conceive should receive the vaccination at least three months prior to becoming pregnant. Pregnant women who become infected with the varicella virus are at risk for serious complications including pneumonia, the CDC said.

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