Denise Foley

Have You Had Your Shingles Shot?

A few months ago, retired Pennsylvania journalist and radio talk show host Pat Wandling woke up with a strange pain in her back. "My skin hurt," recalls Wandling. She didn't think much of it until the next day when, while watching television, she leaned back in her chair and her back started to burn. Eventually, the pain spread to her waist, where a rash appeared.

She called her doctor. "I thought it was shingles," says Wadling.

And it was. It was a mild case of this often excruciatingly painful disease, caused when the dormant chickenpox virus -- varicella zoster -- reactivates and begins reproducing. The pain is the result of damage to the nerve endings where the virus lives -- usually quietly -- after a case of chickenpox.

Older people like Wandling, who jokingly describes herself as "fearfully close to 80," are more susceptible to the disease because immunity to shingles declines with age. In fact, about 1 million people get shingles every year; the average lifetime risk is about 30 percent. And it occurs among the young too, sometimes more painfully.

So Why Don't People Get the Shot?

Wandling says she knew that a shingles vaccine was available, but it didn't occur to her to get it.

"I didn't think it was necessary, like the flu or pneumonia shot is. I've had those. I never thought I would get shingles. I thought it was something old people get," says Wandling, laughing.

She's not alone. The shingles vaccine has been around since 2006, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), less than 15 percent of those who should get the shot -- people 50 and older -- actually do. Read more about the vaccine from the CDC here.

Why? The vaccine is fairly effective, reducing shingles by roughly 51 percent in people 60 and older, though that drops off to only about 38 percent after 70. It also has few side effects. Most important, it cuts the risk of postherpetic neuralgia (PHN) -- a painful and literal afterburn that can go on for months or even years after the blistering shingles rash has disappeared -- by as much as 67 percent. PHN is reason enough to get vaccinated: It can be so severe that it interferes with your appetite and sleep and is most common in those over 60.

One reason the vaccine, called Zostavax®, hasn't been in demand is that it hasn't been available. Delays and back orders have left it in short supply. In addition, it's expensive -- $160 to $195 a dose. Not covered by Medicare Part B, it is included in Part D, but there is usually a co-pay, which can be an expensive burden for those on a fixed income. Partly because of the shortages, doctors haven't been pushing it either, says the CDC.

But having shingles once, or knowing someone who's suffered from it, might be motivation enough to dig deep and pay whatever it takes to avoid it. After her brief bout with it, Wandling says she'll be getting the vaccine to prevent a worse experience. "I was very lucky this time, but it's a brutal disease."


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Health - Have You Had Your Shingles Shot?