Shingles vaccine protects seniors but is costly

Source: Toronto Star

Shingles is a painful illness caused by the chickenpox virus that can show up without warning later in life. One big road block to getting the vaccine is the cost

By: Nancy J. White

The first time Shirley White went to the emergency room with sharp back pain, she thought she’d pulled a muscle moving furniture. The doctor injected her with pain medication.

Two days later, she was back in emergency. Not only was the pain worse, but an itchy, blistery rash was spreading from her back to her front on her left side. A classic case of shingles, the doctor said. Herpes zoster, known as shingles, is caused by the chickenpox virus which lurks in the spinal nerve roots for decades after the childhood disease. Doctors don't know why the virus may suddenly reactivate later in life.

On her third visit to emergency, the pain was excruciating. "I was literally screaming," says White, 77. "Very sharp pains were going through me like fire."

The Caledon resident, who was laid up for nearly four months two years ago, might have avoided the illness, or at least reduced its severity, if she had gotten the shingles vaccination. Available in Canada since 2009, it's recommended by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization for people age 60 and older and approved for those in their 50s. A person's lifetime risk of developing shingles is about 20 to 30 per cent, and that risk steeply increases as a person ages into their 60s and 70s.

But not a lot of seniors have been rolling up their sleeves. Awareness of adult immunization, apart from the yearly flu shot, is generally low, and the relatively new shingles vaccine faces additional challenges. Some patients stall, wondering about the best age to get it. Overall, the vaccine reduces the incidence of herpes zoster by 51 per cent but is less effective for older seniors, those who are most at risk. So far, studies show the vaccine lasts for at least seven years.

The biggest road block, however, is the cost, about $200, which some private plans cover. No province funds it yet. Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care says it continues to review information about the vaccine to consider funding. One specific concern, according to the ministry, is that the vaccine must be kept frozen, inhibiting broad distribution. Currently, patients usually take a prescription to a pharmacy and go promptly to the doctor with the vaccine in an ice pack.

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