The new shingles vaccine

By age 55, 30 to 40 percent of people have lost immunity to shingles.


Standing in a hotel room a year ago, my husband dropped his pajama pants to expose a rash on his hip. Looking over his shoulder accusingly, he said, “Get rid of your ‘water saving’ note  telling the maids not to change the sheets! This place has bed bugs.”

Turned out he had shingles.

“How could that happen?” he asked his doctor when we returned home. “I had the vaccination.”

“The vaccine wears off in about five years,” his doctor told him.

Yesterday I went for my yearly physical.

“Get the new shingles vaccine,” my doctor ordered, adding that the new vaccine — Shingrix — prevents more than 90 percent of shingles cases, even at older ages; the former vaccination, Zostavax, helped only half his patients over age 60 and even fewer of his older patients.

The doctor continued: “Get the booster shot — two to six months after the first. We think it may give you up to 10 years’ immunity. Nothing boosts seniors’ immunity like this. Check your insurance. If it’s not covered, it’s around $280.”

What is shingles?

You bet I’ll get vaccinated. Shingles is a virus that originates with childhood chicken pox and stays in the body for life, lingering in the nerve cells that run parallel to the spine.

According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, shingles is associated with normal aging and anything that weakens the immune system such as certain medications, cancers or infections. But it can also occur in healthy children and younger persons. Shingles is not passed from person to person.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says our immune systems normally keep the virus in check. But by age 55, 30 to 40 percent of people have lost immunity, and the virus can awaken. By age 85, 50 percent of the population will develop shingles.

Generally, the virus travels to one side of the waist, half encircling it, but it can spread along a nerve leading to the eye, causing blindness. The CDC lists other rare complications such as pneumonia, hearing problems, brain inflammation (encephalitis) or death.

However, shingles’ main medical symptom is pain, which can be intense and debilitating. While the pain usually subsides after three to four weeks, it can turn into a chronic pain syndrome called post-herpetic neuralgia, which you shouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

Zostavax to Shingrix

Surprisingly, the usually slow-moving CDC immunization advisory committee issued a statement recommending the new drug, Shingrix, over the former established Zostavax.

I’ve never before advocated a drug, but here’s what the research to date shows:

  • Zostavax, the former standard of care, cut shingles outbreaks by 51 percent, but people lost protection in about five years. It was less effective with people over age 70, and couldn’t be administered to people undergoing chemotherapy or with compromised immune systems.
  • The new vaccine, Shingrix, is more than 90 percent effective against the virus, seems to work for people over 70, and can be used by people on chemo or with compromised immune systems.

Professor Tony Cunningham, writing in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, said Shingrix offers protection for up to four years, but he believes it will last longer.

“The second dose of the vaccine is important to ensure long-term protection — even for those over 70 years of age,” Cunningham said. “This is quite remarkable because there are no other vaccines that perform nearly as well for people in their 70s and their 80s. We are seeing results comparable to those of childhood vaccinations.”

As for my husband, his doctor said his shingles would’ve been worse if he hadn’t been vaccinated. (He swears that Listerine swabs helped his rash subside.)

He’s going with me to get the new vaccine. You can come down with shingles twice!

Carrie Luger Slayback, an award-winning teacher and champion marathoner, shares personal experience and careful research.