Most of what you hear lately about vaccines focuses on doctors trying to convince people to get vaccinated against diseases such as measles, polio and flu. Meanwhile, a growing number of people resist these shots out of safety concerns.
But when it comes to a new shingles vaccine, the tables are turned. More people want to get the shot than there is vaccine available.
Some friends of mine strongly urged me to get it, and they were convincing enough to cause me to look into it. Here’s what I uncovered.
To say that an attack of shingles – a virus technically known as herpes zoster – can be unpleasant is an understatement. It hurts like the devil and causes unsightly rashes and blisters.
What is Shingles?
The disease is found in people who suffered from chicken pox, a category that includes almost all seniors like myself. Even though the itchy chicken pox bumps disappear within a week or so, the virus that causes it – varicella zoster virus – may linger dormant in your nervous system for the rest of your life.
As long as your immune system stays at the top of its game, this virus, which can cause shingles, can’t emerge. But as you grow older, your immunity starts to slip. That lessened protection can allow an ugly, uncomfortable shingles outbreak.
Age, Heart Problems Raise Your Risk of Shingles
Statistics show that about a million cases of shingles are diagnosed in the U.S. every year. That’s a big enough number to get my attention, compared to, say tetanus, where there are about 30 cases a year.
One in every three of us will, at some point, develop shingles. Most of these cases are in people over age 50. And if you live to be 85 or older, you have a very high one in two chance of getting shingles – at an age when most of us definitely don’t need a painful illness.1
Research at Stanford has found that having heart disease raises your risk of shingles. According to these researchers, this happens because coronary artery disease increases the release of signaling molecules that prevent immune cells called T cells from effectively suppressing the varicella zoster virus.2
As far as that goes, if you have ANY illness that results in a compromised immune system, your risk for shingles also goes up. HIV is an example, but there are plenty of less extreme diseases that leave your immune system weak.
When Shingles Becomes Dangerous
If you’re a woman, they also found you’re in greater danger of suffering an ocular shingles infection than if you’re a man. Caucasians are also at greatest risk of shingles eye infection, followed by African-Americans, people of Asian descent and Latinos.
This serious complication of shingles is becoming more common. Research at the Kellogg Eye Center, at the University of Michigan, found that among the 21 million people included in their study, cases of what they call herpes zoster opthalmicus, shingles eye infection, have tripled in recent years.3 It’s a serious problem because the virus can cause corneal scarring and blindness.
Another risk is stroke. If you suffer a case of shingles, your chances of suffering a stroke increase significantly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), your risk of a stroke jumps a whopping 61 percent in the two weeks after an outbreak of shingles.
That is scary.
What’s more, you remain at high risk of a stroke for at least six months after a shingles outbreak. The good news: The increase in risk isn’t permanent, it does gradually return to normal.4
Yet another shingles danger: The disease is contagious when your rash is in the blister phase. You can pass on shingles – or potentially even chicken pox – to an adult or child.5 Thankfully, you’re not contagious before the blisters appear or after they heal.
So, Is It Worth it to Get a Shingles Vaccination?
The newest version of the shingles vaccination, called Shingrix, is extremely effective. It consists of a single protein known as glycoprotein E, derived from the outer shell of the herpes zoster virus, in contrast to an older vaccine that offered a weakened form of the virus.
As a result, the newer vaccine offers more than 90 percent protection against shingles. For example, research shows it generates a 24-fold increase in T-cells that defend against the shingles virus. That’s twelve times more than previous vaccines.6
“This is quite remarkable because there are no other vaccines that perform nearly so well for people in their 70s and their 80s. We are seeing results comparable to those of childhood vaccinations,” says researcher Tony Cunningham who has studied the effects of the vaccine.
“We anticipate that this protection will actually last much, much longer,” he continues. “We are now measuring the efficacy of the vaccine over the next ten years and are very optimistic about the results.”
He does add that you need a booster shot to get the best protection. Usually that is given two to six months after the first shot.
I have to admit that a lot of the facts about shingles and the latest shingles vaccination make a good case for getting vaccinated. I’m still thinking it over, not because I think it’s a bad idea but because I’m pretty confident about my immune system.
If you decide to be vaccinated, I’d say there’s solid support for your decision. If you suffer from frequent colds or flu or other infections, if you’ve been through chemotherapy – if you have ANY reason to think your immunity is not so good – I would urge you to get this done.