Shingles vaccine can help prevent the disease in older adults

Consumer Reports News: October 17, 2012 04:23 PM

Older adults who get the shingles vaccine can cut their risk of this painful condition in half, according to a study out today. Unfortunately, many people who could benefit from the shot haven't had it, in part because the wrongly assume they don't need it.

The new study, published by the Cochrane Library, found that the vaccine is more effective for people in their 60s than those 70 or older because they have a higher immune response. But those in their 60s also face a higher risk of side effects.

Shingles is a painful skin rash caused by the same virus that causes childhood chickenpox. Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles, because the virus can remain dormant in the body for years, until declining immunity from age or disease causes it to reactivate, travel through nerves to the skin's surface, and produce painful blisters. More people than ever are getting the disease, in part because people are living longer.

Unfortunately, many of us wrongly assume that vaccines become less important as we age. We've listed eight vaccines, including shingles, recommended for adults, and outlined who should get each one and why.

We recommend that adults 60 or older get the vaccine, which is called Zostavax, regardless of whether they have had chickenpox in the past. It's also approved for those 50 to 59 years old as well.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently found that only 6.7 percent of adults 60 and older had received the vaccine. Part of that low rate may be due to the high cost of storing and handling the vaccine, plus supply shortages may have limited interest from doctors and led manufacturers to promote it less forcefully. Regardless, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the vaccine shortage that occurred last year is now resolved.

The biggest obstacle for people who should get the vaccine is perhaps that Medicare makes getting the shot cumbersome by treating it as a prescription. As a result, people 65 and older often have to get their doctor to write a prescription for the vaccine and then find a pharmacist who is certified to give the shot, or then bring the vaccine back to their doctor.

Medicare Part D plans cover the shingles vaccine, but the amount you have to pay can vary. Medicare Part B does not cover the shingles vaccine. If you have private insurance or Medicaid, your plan may cover the vaccine (contact your insurer to find out). If your private insurance covers the vaccine, you can bypass the Medicare issue by getting the shot before you turn 65.

Shingles vaccine effective, but underused

Vaccines for preventing herpes zoster in older adults [Cochrane Summaries]
Shingles Vaccination: What You Need to Know [CDC]
Current Vaccine Shortages & Delays [CDC]
Biologic Product Shortages [FDA]

Maggie Shader

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