Reactions to the Zostavax shingles vaccine inspired dozens of lawsuits, and now the CDC recommends rival Shingrix. But should you get it?
Shingles is a painful viral infection that causes a rash, usually as a mass of blisters wrapping around the right or left side of the torso. A million cases of the disease occur in the U.S. every year, and the risk rises with age.
Shingles is caused by the same virus that triggers chickenpox. Once you’ve had chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in nerve tissue and can reactivate in the form of shingles years later. Anyone who has ever had chickenpox can come down with shingles. Many experts anticipate that half the population over age 80 will develop shingles.
Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006, Zostavax shingles vaccine was recommended to those 60 and older. The live vaccine is given as a single injection in the upper arm. But many who got the shot say it gave them shingles, or non-shingles related injuries, due to the live virus in Zostavax. Hundreds of product liability claims are pending against drug maker Merck & Co. from those who got the vaccine. Plaintiffs allege that the vaccine caused them to develop a more severe, painful and less treatable form of shingles than the one they were trying to avoid, as well as other auto-immune disorders.
In 2017, the FDA approved a new vaccine for shingles, Shingrix, that is 90 percent effective at protecting against the virus. Developed by GlaxoSmithKline, Shingrix is different from most other vaccines, including Zostavax. Shingrix is made from a single protein that comes from the outer shell of the herpes zoster virus, rather than a weakened form of the whole virus. And the vaccine contains something called an adjuvant that helps your body fight the virus.
As people get older, their natural immunity declines, leaving them more susceptible to disease. This is often when the dormant chickenpox virus attacks, causing stabbing pain and flu-like symptoms.
A new study included more than 15,000 people in 18 countries who got two doses of the vaccine, two months apart. Participants were from Europe, North America, Latin America, Asia and Australia.
“The second dose of the vaccine is important to ensure long-term protection,” says lead researcher Professor Tony Cunningham from the Westmead Institute for Medical Research. “The efficacy is approximately 90 percent for all age groups, even for those over 70 years of age.
“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.
What’s particularly exciting, though, is that 90 percent of recipients had an increased immune response sustained across the three-year duration of the study.”
CDC Switches to Shingrix
As of 2018, the CDC dubbed Shingrix the preferred vaccine for shingles. However, Shingrix comes with a downside. It’s more likely to cause unpleasant side effects than Zostavax, according to Dr. Kathleen Dooling, a medical officer in the division of viral diseases at the CDC.
Your arm is likely to be sore in the day or two after vaccination. Eighty percent of people reported injection-site pain, redness or swelling. You may also experience general flu-like symptoms such as tiredness, nausea, headache, shivering, muscle aches and fever.
Who Should Get Shingrix Vaccine
People who are in good health age 50 or older should get vaccinated with Shingrix, according to the CDC. While you can’t get shingles if you’ve never had chickenpox, more than 99 percent of Americans over the age of 40 have had the disease. People should get the Shingrix vaccine even if they’ve gotten the Zostavax shot in the past or have already had shingles.
It’s important to get a second dose of Shingrix within two to six months after the first shot. It may trigger another bout of side effects, and those could be different than any you got from the first shot.