Why the over 70’s should think about preventing shingles

A shingles vaccination programme is showing some good results with a reduction in both the number of cases and long-term complications.

A new study in the Lancet Journal of Public Health shows a substantial decrease in shingles cases and associated complications in the first three years since the introduction of the shingles vaccination programme by Public Health England (PHE).

Despite these very positive results, uptake of the vaccine has declined, with a 13 per cent decline of the disease in people aged 70 since the start of the programme and an 8.4 per cent decline in people aged 78 years since the start of the programme.

PHE is now urging adults aged between 70 and 78 years to protect themselves by taking up the offer for vaccination and book an appointment with their GP. Shingles is a painful condition and can be especially debilitating for older people.

The new analysis of the shingles vaccine programme, which was introduced in England in September 2013, estimated that the vaccine was 62 per cent effective against shingles and between 70 and 88 per cent effective against post herpetic neuralgia (PHN), or long term pain, which is one of the main complications of shingles.

The study estimated that GP visits for shingles and PHN reduced by 35 per cent and 50 per cent respectively, in those aged 70 during 2013-2016. An estimated 17,000 GP visits for shingles were avoided amongst the 5.5 million individuals who were given the vaccination in the first three years of the programme across England.

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisations at Public Health England, said: “I encourage all those who are aged between 70 and 78 to make an appointment with their GP practice to get the shingles vaccine, as well as those under 80 who previously missed out. It’s the best way to avoid this very nasty disease and the long-term complications that can develop from having it.

“Our population is ageing and the risk from getting shingles and complications is higher as you get older. Immunisation is the best way to protect yourself from this painful, sometimes debilitating condition. Taking up the vaccine is an important part of staying healthy as you age.”

Shingles is characterised by a skin rash on one side of the body. It results from reactivation of chicken pox virus that has been lying dormant in the body since childhood. It can last on average for two to four weeks and be significantly debilitating, causing loss of sleep and interference with day to day activities. Symptoms can include sharp stabbing pain and burning of the skin in the affected area, as well as feeling unwell with a bad headache and a fever.

Over 50,000 cases of shingles occur in people aged 70 years and over each year in England and Wales, with approximately 50 cases being fatal. The likelihood of getting shingles increases with age and adults aged 70 years and above are more at risk of developing serious complications from it, such as post herpetic neuralgia (PHN), a severe nerve pain that lasts for several months or more after the rash has gone.

Though many recover from PHN, symptoms can last for years or can become permanent. It is therefore vital for every individual eligible to get their vaccine. In England, the shingles vaccination programme now targets adults aged 70 and 78 with a catch up programme for those aged 71-79 years.

PHE is encouraging healthcare professionals and the public to be aware of the complications surrounding shingles and to encourage those within the eligible groups to get vaccinated.