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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 June, 2005, 00:29 GMT 01:29 UK
Vaccine reduces cases of shingles
man with chicken pox
Shingles is caused by the reactivation of the chickenpox virus
An "extra strong" chickenpox vaccine has cut cases of shingles in adults, US research has found.

Shingles is caused by a reactivation of the herpes zoster virus which causes the childhood illness.

The team, including researchers from Merck, which is developing the vaccine, found immunisation led to less severe symptoms in those who were infected.

A UK expert welcomed the New England Journal of Medicine study, and said a vaccine could help many elderly people.

The UK's Department of Health said its expert advisory body would consider the implications of the study findings.

Ongoing pain

Once someone has got over a chickenpox infection, the virus 'hides' in nerve cells usually located near the spinal cord, where it remains in a dormant state.

Shingles is caused by the reactivation of the chickenpox virus
People who have not had chickenpox cannot develop shingles
Someone with shingles can give another person chickenpox if they have never had the childhood infection

As a person's immunity weakens with age, the virus can reactivate.

Shingles usually first manifests as pain, itching or tingling in an area of skin on one side of the body or face before developing into a rash.

It is most common in older people. The Herpes Virus Association estimates that by the age of 85, around 60% will have had shingles.

Many continue to suffer chronic nerve pain once the rash has subsided.

Giving people the vaccine aims to boost the strength of immune system so the virus does not get the chance to return.

In the US study, led by researchers from the Department of Veterans Affairs along with experts from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institutes of Health and Merck & Co.

More than 38,500 men and women aged over 60, recruited at 22 sites across the US, took part.

Half were given a single injection of the zoster vaccine - a live, weakened form of varicella-zoster virus which is responsible for chickenpox - while the other half received a dummy version.

Merck claims this is a "more potent" version of the chickenpox vaccine, which had been given to American children for the last decade.

Neither the scientists or the study participants knew who received which vaccine.

More cases likely

People were monitored for around three years after they were vaccinated.

I would be very keen to see this vaccine used widely in the elderly
Professor Judy Breuer, Barts and the London NHS Trust

There were 315 cases of shingles among the group which was vaccinated, compared to 642 amongst those who were not.

Those who did develop shingles, even though they had been given the vaccine, reported lower levels of pain and discomfort than those who were given the dummy.

They also reported lower levels of chronic nerve pain following shingles infection.

Stephen Straus, director of the National Institute of Health Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, who worked on the study, said: "These striking results indicate for the first time that we can use a vaccine to prevent shingles, one of the most common and debilitating illnesses of ageing."

Merck has applied to the US Food and Drug Administration for a licence to use the vaccine.

Professor Liz Miller, head of the Health Protection Agency's immunisation department, said: "These results are very encouraging as they show that the vaccine can prevent shingles and reduce the severity of an attack".

Judy Breuer, professor of virology at Barts and the London NHS Trust, told the BBC News website: "I would be very keen to see this vaccine used widely in the elderly, maybe in combination with the pneumonia or influenza vaccines."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health called the results "promising" and said the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation would be asked to review the evidence and provide advice on the merits of the vaccine.


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