Unfortunately, the older we get, the more likely we are to develop shingles. This condition is most common in the over-fifties, with three in 1,000 affected every year. That figure rises to 11 in every 1,000 people aged over 80 who are affected by shingles each year.
The good news is that there is now a shingles vaccine available to people aged 50 and over. However, for the moment there are only 60,000 doses of the vaccine available, not enough for everyone who might want it.
“The shingles vaccine is a complex vaccine to manufacture and, for the time being, we simply don’t have enough Zostavox ® to meet the needs of a nationwide vaccination programme,” said Richard Stubbins, Vice President of Sanofi Pasteur MSD in the UK, manufacturers of the vaccine.
“We are scaling up the production of the vaccine,” said Paul Hardiman, of Sanofi Pasteur MSD. “Our aim is for it to be available through the NHS.” The company says it is committed to supporting the launch of a UK national vaccination programme as soon as possible, in line with a recommendation from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). The committee recommended that there should be a 'universal herepes zoster vaccination programme for adults aged 70 to 79'.
But for the moment, if you want to be vaccinated against shingles, you have to buy it with a private prescription. At a cost of £99.96 for the one-dose vaccination, it’s not an option for everyone. If you are concerned about the prospect of developing shingles, and can pay for it, the advice is to see your GP. If they feel that this is a good idea, given your medical history, they can write you a private prescription, and give you the injection – neither of which they should charge you for.
You’d need to take the prescription to a pharmacy (check first that they have some of the vaccine in stock), and pay there both for the vaccine, and for an additional dispensing fee. If they don’t have any of the vaccine, ask the pharmacist if they know where you can obtain it.
Sanofi Pasteur MSD, which produces the vaccine says that it may prevent shingles in half of the people that receive it. Of the other fifty percent, two thirds may feel less severe pain and discomfort.
What is shingles?
Shingles is caused by the same virus that gives us that common childhood complaint, chickenpox. The virus – herpes varicella-zoster - lurks, inactive, in our nervous system, kept under control by our immune system until something kicks it back into action. We don’t know precisely what the trigger is, but it may be having a weakened immune system, possibly because of being stressed, or simply getting older.
Shingles infects a nerve and the skin around it. The symptoms often start with feeling poorly, and having a high temperature, in the early stages, and pain – dull or burning, and at times sharp and stabbing occasionally. A rash that develops into itchy blisters (rather like chicken pox), usually develops on one side of your body, in the area of the infected nerve. Some people – around one in 10 of those who have shingles, also develop post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), long-lasting pain.
If you think you may have shingles, it’s important to see your GP – having treatment early may help to keep your symptoms – and discomfort – under control. Your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication such as acyclovir, which may make your symptoms less severe, but which needs to be started within three days of the rash appearing. Other treatments include painkillers and antidepressants such as amitriptyline, which can help manage your pain.
If you have a temperature of over 38C, a severe headache, confusion and memory loss you should see your doctor as soon as possible. The same applies if you have symptoms affecting your eyes, such as an inflamed cornea and/or iris, conjunctivitis, and a headache and rash around your eye, in which case you may have ophthalmic shingles and should get medical attention quickly.
NHS Choices - www.nhs.uk