A shingles jab… but only if you can afford 100



21:15 GMT, 7 April 2012

Vaccines usually hit the headlines when they bring new hope to sick children. But the latest making news in Britain is a shingles jab – for over-50s. This is great news as more than 20 per cent of adults will be struck by this virus, which can be incredibly painful, distressing and leave scars.

What is shingles, and can anyone get it

Shingles is caused by the chickenpox virus, herpes zoster. Once you have had chickenpox, a small amount of the zoster virus remains dormant in your nerves. If you are run-down, or your immune system is weakened, the dormant virus takes hold again and causes shingles.

The new shingles jab will be offered to over 50s (picture posed by model)

The new shingles jab will be offered to over 50s (picture posed by model)

The first sign is usually excessively sensitive, tingling or burning skin where the shingles rash subsequently appears. The area is often painful. Fever, headache and enlarged lymph nodes are also common. After a few days, the characteristic shingles rash appears as a band or patch of red spots on the side of the trunk or face. It usually appears on one side only, corresponding to the nerve in which the virus is active. The rash develops into fluid-filled blisters that then collapse, forming small ulcers. These dry out and form crusts.

Many people never have shingles, but others, particularly those with high stress levels or a weak immune system, may suffer more than once. Shingles is much more common in the elderly as the immune system weakens, so the vaccine has initially been licensed for the over-50s.

How does the vaccine work

A small amount of zoster virus is given in the vaccination which stimulates the body to develop antibodies. Anyone who has had chickenpox already has some antibodies but this vaccine creates a fresh supply – like boosting the immunity that already exists, reducing the chances of a shingles attack. It has been shown in trials to prevent shingles in 70 per cent of people. In those who do get shingles, the attacks are much less severe. Its effect seems to last four years.

Will this become a standard vaccine for the elderly

This is where the problem lies. Initially, the Department of Health (DoH) wanted to roll out a vaccination programme for everyone over 70 but there has been a supply problem affecting the UK. It is already widely used in America but the DoH failed to negotiate a large enough contract with the manufacturers to enable a national immunisation programme. This has put the UK in a strange position – 60,000 doses have been supplied to Britain but there is no fair way of distributing them.

So how can I get myself vaccinated

Zostavax is available on private prescription at a cost of 99.96 – a GP can issue this and administer it as part of their NHS work, but it has to be supplied on a private prescription with the patient paying the cost. It is an unfair situation as only those who can afford it will get the vaccine, rather than those who are most in need.

Are there plans to roll out a national vaccination schedule for the elderly

The DoH will look to the vaccinations board to plan the programme before buying a large enough supply to vaccinate everyone. This really should have been done a few years ago – the vaccine was initially available as far back as 2006. For the NHS, the cost of the vaccine has to be reasonable to vaccinate everyone. The idea is then to vaccinate everyone aged 70 to 79.