Shingles vaccine to cut cases by half

Last updated at 12:26 02 June 2005

A vaccine against painful shingles infections could cut cases in older people by half.

A US study involving more than 38,500 men and women found that the experimental 'zoster vaccine' prevented shingles in about half those treated with it.

The vaccine was also found to dramatically reduce the severity and complications in vaccinated people who got the disease, according to research in The New England Journal of Medicine.

The five-and-a-half-year study, led by the Department of Veterans Affairs, focused on men and women over the age of 60, who are more likely to develop shingles.

Half the participants received a single injection of zoster vaccine while the others were given a placebo vaccine.

After an average of more than three years follow-up, the vaccine reduced cases of shingles by 51 per cent.

Burden of pain

There were 652 cases of shingles in the placebo group, compared to 315 in the vaccinated group.

In those who had the vaccine but still developed shingles, the researchers found that the total burden of pain and discomfort was 61 per cent lower than in the placebo group.

The vaccine also reduced the incidence of postherpetic neuralgia - a form of chronic nerve pain which is a common serious complication of shingles - by two-thirds compared to the dummy vaccine.

Infectious disease specialist Stephen Straus said: "This is very promising news for older persons.

"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.

"And, among vaccine recipients who did get shingles, the episodes generally were far milder than they otherwise would have been."

Shingles - also known as herpes zoster - is caused by the reactivation of the virus that causes chickenpox.

After a case of chickenpox the virus is not eliminated but retreats to clusters of sensory nerve cells, usually near the spinal cord, where it remains in a dormant state.

Reactive virus

But, as immunity weakens with age, the virus can reactivate, leading to nerve pain and a blistering rash on the skin.

Lead researcher Michael Oxman said: "For some people, shingles can result in months or even years of misery."

The researchers said that, as the number of older people in the population increased, it was likely that cases of shingles would rise.

Some 12 per cent of older people with shingles will suffer pain lasting three months or more.

This can be severely debilitating, causing burning, throbbing and stabbing pain which is difficult to treat.

Merck, manufacturer of the zoster vaccine used in the study, has submitted a licence application to the Food and Drug Administration in the US.

If it is approved, the researchers estimated that the vaccine could prevent 250,000 cases of shingles in the US each year and significantly reduce the severity of the disease in another 250,000 cases.

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