In brief: Shingles vaccine shows promise in large trial

In brief

Shingles vaccine shows promise in large trial

If approved by the FDA, a vaccine for shingles could be available in doctors' offices in spring 2006. That's the word from Merck & Co., the vaccine's developer, after a large controlled trial showed that it reduced the chances of getting shingles by 51% in healthy adults over age 60. Moreover, the vaccine cut the incidence of postherpetic neuralgia by two-thirds. Postherpetic neuralgia is a complication of shingles that can result in chronic pain lasting a year or more.

The classic symptoms of shingles (herpes zoster) are a blistering rash and pain, usually on one side of the face or trunk. The disease is caused by the varicella-zoster virus; the most common way that people are exposed to it is through childhood chickenpox. After the initial infection, the virus lies dormant in nerve cells. Later in life, when the immune system is less able to keep it in check, the virus can resurface, producing shingles. Not everyone who's had chickenpox will get shingles, but by age 85, about half will.

The vaccine might help avert a predicted increase in shingles cases as baby boomers begin reaching the ages most affected by the disease — 60 and over. Shingles may also be on the rise because of the effectiveness of the chickenpox vaccine, which came into use in the mid-1990s. Before this vaccine was available, adults got a boost to their immune systems when their children and grandchildren came down with chickenpox. Increasingly denied that extra immune system challenge, today's adults may be more likely to develop shingles.

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