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Posted: May 28, 2008

Feds Urge Shingles Vaccine for Every Older American

People age 60 and older should receive a vaccination to guard against shingles, a viral infection that causes painful and blistering rashes, according to federal health officials.
 
The risk of getting shingles grows especially serious as people age, beginning at around age 50, and is highest among the elderly. The infection is caused by the same varicella-zoster virus responsible for the common childhood illness chicken pox.
 
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it is recommending a single dose of Zostavax, the only vaccine to prevent shingles, for people age 60 and older, even if they have had a prior episode of shingles. Zostavax is a vaccine produced by Merck & Co.
 
The federal agency said its recommendation updates a provisional one it made in 2006 after the vaccine was approved by the Food and Drug Administration and recommended by a CDC advisory panel of immunization experts.
 
The CDC said Zostavax has been found to be highly effective in warding off shingles, cutting the occurrence of shingles by about 50% in people 60 and older. It’s even more effective in the 60-69 age bracket, where shingles occurrences have been cut by 64% with Zostavax, the CDC said.
 
Shingles is very common in the US society. The CDC said more than 43 million adults over the age of 60 in the United States are estimated to be at risk for shingles, and about a third of all Americans will eventually get shingles, including half of all people who live to age 85.
 
There is no cure for the painful condition, which is also known as herpes zoster. After a person has had chicken pox, the virus remains dormant in the body, and years later can reactivate as shingles.
 
"It is a nasty, life-altering affliction. Although the vaccine is not perfect, it's pretty good," Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and vice president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, Told the Reuters news agency.
 
"The pain can be mild to very severe. The rash illness itself can be on any part of the body. It's usually on the trunk, but can be on the face -- in which case it can involve the eyes, and so it can threaten vision," Schaffner said.
 
The rash generally fades in two or three weeks, but pain can continue for months in some patients for months, Schaffner added.
 
Dr. Jane Seward, deputy director of the CDC's division of viral diseases, said she hopes the agency's recommendation will encourage more older people to get the vaccine. "The vaccine provides an exciting new tool for preventing shingles and its serious complications," Seward said.
 
Meanwhile, Merck said in a statement that more than 50,000 physicians' offices, pharmacies and public health clinics have ordered Zostavax since the FDA approval two years ago.
 
Merck said that health insurance plans covering about 94% of privately insured Americans have approved reimbursement for the vaccine. Merck also said Zostavax is eligible for reimbursement under the government's Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, and that health plans covering more than 90% of people enrolled in the Part D benefit are reimbursing for it.
 
The company also said that Zostavax is part of its Vaccine Patient Assistance Program in the United States in which Merck makes available for free various vaccines to adults who are uninsured and unable to pay for them. Click here for more details.

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