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Vaccine Can Protect Against Shingles

By Connie Bobik

In a previous column I discussed how sunburns early in life have an effect later in life, mainly skin cancers. There is another sleeping giant from our childhood that’s also waiting for the right time to re-emerge:

The varicella-zoster virus that causes chickenpox.

Long after the blisters and scabs have disappeared, the virus remains dormant on nerve cells and places us at risk in later years for developing shingles. There are about one million cases of shingles annually in the US, with half of the cases in those age 60 or older.

It’s estimated that one in three people will develop shingles in their lifetime. Why?

Prior to 1995 there was no chickenpox vaccine available. As a result, the vast majority of people contracted chickenpox, a highly contagious disease. In the early 1990s there was an average of four million cases of chickenpox, with all victims susceptible to future shingles.

With vaccination the incidence of chickenpox decreased significantly and, hopefully, so will the incidence of shingles in those vaccinated. Currently, two doses of vaccine are recommended — one at 12 to 15 months, and a second at 4 to 6 years of age.

Shingles is personal. You cannot catch it or give it to someone. However, one can get chickenpox from someone with shingles if they have never had chickenpox.

The immune system keeps the virus dormant following chickenpox. As one ages, the immune system weakens and allows reactivation of the virus. Any conditions that weaken the immune system such as cancer or even stress can do the same.

Shingles begins with a tingling, burning sensation and painful rash on a single area of the body. This is followed by fluid-filled blisters that crust over and fall off. It usually lasts three to five weeks.

Unfortunately, one can develop shingles pain syndrome that can persist for up to a year interfering with sleep, daily activities and with little relief.

Studies have shown that 99 percent of Americans age 40 or older have had chickenpox. They are at risk for shingles with aging.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends those age 60 or older receive the shingles vaccine as well as those who may have already suffered with shingles to prevent further episodes. The vaccine reduces shingles outbreaks be 51 percent and is 67 percent effective against shingles pain syndrome. It is most effective in those ages 60 to 69.

Recently the Florida State Legislature passed a law that will increase accessibility of the shingles vaccine in the future by allowing pharmacists to administer it with a prescription.

So be proactive and know your risk for shingles.

Bobik is an Associate Professor of Nursing and Director of Brevard Community College’s Nursing program on the Cocoa Campus.