Page last updated at 01:02 GMT, Sunday, 31 January 2010

Shingles vaccine hope for elderly

Man with bad case of shingles on his head
Shingles can cause long-term excruciating pain in the elderly

Millions of people in their seventies could be vaccinated against shingles after government backing for a recommendation from expert advisers.

The only remaining stumbling block could be the relatively high cost of the vaccine.

Patient groups say using it would roughly halve the number of cases.

Shingles affects approximately 250,000 people in the UK every year, and many of them go on to suffer debilitating nerve pain.

As well as long-term pain, shingles infection in the elderly can make them unable to care for themselves.

A vaccine could save money currently spent on extra care for those affected.

Shingles is an illness caused by the same virus responsible for chickenpox in children.


Shingles is caused by the re-emergence of the dormant Herpes Varicella-Zoster virus, which causes chicken-pox in children. Up to nine in 10 adults are thought to carry the virus

There are an estimated 250,000 cases a year in the UK, with symptoms including painful, itchy rashes and sores

Approximately 100,000 develop "postherpetic pain", when the virus damages a nerve. This can mean soreness, itching or numbness, which can last for many months or even years

You can't catch shingles from someone with chicken-pox, or from someone else with shingles. But if someone has never had chicken-pox, they can get it from contact with shingles sores

Even though a childhood chicken-pox infection may recede, the virus can remain dormant in the body.

Later in life, perhaps triggered by a lowered immune system, it may re-emerge, causing painful sores and rashes, and in some patients, "postherpetic" pain which can persist for months or years.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which advises the government on vaccines, recommended the vaccine to those aged 70 to 79.

However, it said that more work needed to be done to make sure that the vaccine could be bought cost-effectively.

The Department of Health calculates that up to four million people might be immunised.

'Fair deal'

Public health minister Gillian Merron said: "Shingles is an unpleasant illness which can be very serious, especially for older people.

"A vaccination programme would be good news for those in their 70s - it would improve people's quality of life by offering protection against this illness.

Shingles, and postherpetic pain, can make people's final years a complete misery
Nigel Scott, Shingles Support Society

A spokesman for the Department of Health said that the vaccination programme was dependent on negotiating a "fair price" but that he was confident this could be achieved, given the four million doses involved.

He said that ideally, a vaccination programme should start before the end of the year for maximum effectiveness.

Nigel Scott, from the Shingles Support Society, said that he had been calling for vaccination for some time.

"The evidence suggests it will reduce the incidence of shingles by approximately half, and giving it to people in their seventies is a good start.

"Shingles, and postherpetic pain, can make people's final years a complete misery.

"The cost of shingles is often long-term excruciating pain for many patients but there is also a wider cost to society when people find they are no longer able to look after themselves and need carers or have to move to residential accommodation.

"We would like to see the age of vaccination reduced to 60, or lower, in time. "

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