Every year, the shingles virus affects an estimated 1 million people in the United States. It is a painful, unpleasant (though rarely fatal) illness which is a reactivation of the chickenpox virus you had as a child. As your immune system weakens with age, the virus reactivates from where it has been lying dormant in your spinal column. It causes blisters and pain along whole nerve segments in your body. The blisters may come and go after a couple weeks, but the pain can persist for months.
A new vaccine by GlaxoSmithKline that’s showing a 97 percent success rate in patients 50-70 years old could change all that. The established Zostavax vaccine has only about a 50 percent success rate in this age group. The only catch is that the new vaccine is still experimental and hasn’t been federally approved yet, so it won’t be available for a while.
The Longer You Wait, the More You’re at Risk
The risk of getting shingles increases with age, and when you consider that 1-in-3 adults will suffer from shingles in their lifetime, it doesn’t make sense to wait for the newer vaccine when the current one is successful at preventing about half of the cases. If you are 50 or above, you can get the current Zostavax vaccine, with most insurers covering it for those 60 and up. We don’t yet know when the more effective vaccine will be licensed. Glaxo is currently completing studies on the vaccine’s effects on patients who are immune-compromised and on patients older than 70 – neither group can currently take the Zostavax vaccine. After that Glaxo will likely seek approval from the FDA.
You’ll Probably Get to Take it Anyway
It is likely that those who have already taken the established Zostavax vaccine will be recommended to take the Glaxo vaccine once it’s approved. Generally, the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices looks carefully at the data, and if a new vaccine is a great improvement over an older version, will approve using it in individuals who have had the earlier form. The incremental gain will be looked at very closely. When a disease is as common, painful and debilitating as shingles, the cost of vaccinating with the new vaccine may well be outweighed by the benefits of preventing so many more cases. Only after ACIP has made its recommendation will insurance begin to pay for the improved vaccine.
Dr. Melanie Mouzoon, M.D., F.A.A.P., is a pediatric hospitalist and managing physician for Immunization Practices and Travel Medicine at Kelsey-Seybold.