The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved Zostavax, a new vaccine that can protect up to 50% of people age 60 and older from developing shingles.
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chicken pox. After someone has had chicken pox, the virus lies dormant in nerve tissue. As people get older, the virus can reappear in the form of shingles-usually clusters of blisters that develop on one side of the body and that can cause severe pain that may last for weeks, months or years.
The Only Vaccine
"This is the only vaccine that reduces the risk or reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus,," says Dr. Jesse Goodman, director of the FDAs Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.
The vaccine is not intended for people who currently have shingles. "The vaccine will not treat shingles. The whole idea of this vaccine is to prevent people from getting it," says Norman Baylor, director of the FDAs Office of Vaccines Research and Review at the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. "it is essentially boosting an older person's immunity against the virus, in order to prevent the virus from emerging and causing shingles," he adds.
The vaccine is not recommended for people whose immune systems are compromised, such as people who have HIV/AIDS or patients receiving immunosuppressant therapy, Baylor says.
"I am absolutely delighted that is got approved," says Dr. Donald Gilden, professor and chairman of the department of neurology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. "It has been tested for 10 years and shown to reduce the incidence of shingles by 5O%."
Baylor believes this vaccine will have a significant impact on a growing and painful problem for the increasing elderly population. Gilden agrees. "It's not going to wipe out shingles," he says, "but it will reduce the incidence of shingles very effectively."
"This is a terrific advance, with major implications in preventing a serious, common, chronic pain condition," says Dr. Anne Louise Oaklander director of the Nerve Injury Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.
Oaklander says the vaccine offers a great benefit and very little risk. "The benefits are potentially enormous," she says, "not only in lessening illness from shingles but in preventing post-herpetic neuralgia, a devastating pain condition that commonly develops in older shingles patients."