When I last wrote about the shingles vaccine it was to vent my frustration at the Department of Health which had not acquired a decent supply, meaning it was only available to a few people privately. Thankfully now the situation has changed and the national vaccination programme for shingles has been rolled out across NHS GP surgeries.
Currently anyone who is 70 or 79 will be offered the vaccination. There has been some confusion about this very specific age bracket — it is not 70 to 79, it is 70 or 79; the idea is to vaccinate people in age cohorts, so that in a few years there will be blanket coverage for the elderly.
I have found that so far most people to whom I have offered the vaccine have accepted it, usually on the premise they knew someone with shingles and it was “pretty nasty”. Shingles is a very painful condition and actually causes tremendous suffering.
While the rash itself usually lasts two to three weeks, people often go on to have permanent pain in the area of the rash. This is known as neuralgia and is debilitating and very difficult to treat as it doesn’t respond to normal painkillers. Approximately one in 1,000 people over 70 will die from shingles.
Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles. Chickenpox and shingles are caused by a virus called herpes zoster which remains dormant in your nerves. If you are run down the virus takes hold again and causes shingles. Shingles is much more common in the elderly as the immune system weakens and other illnesses are present.
The vaccine stimulates the body to develop antibodies — anyone who has had chickenpox already has some antibodies but this vaccine creates a whole new, fresh supply. In those who do get shingles, the attacks are much less severe. Its effect seems to last for four years.
In trials the vaccination seems to protect 70 per cent of people from getting shingles; but if you do get it having had the vaccine, the episode will be much milder with lower risk of neuralgia.