If you’re an adult living in the United States, there’s a 95-percent chance you’ve had chickenpox. Unfortunately, as we age, we run the risk of reactivating that virus, varicella zoster, in the form of shingles.
If you contract the chickenpox virus, you will carry it for the rest of your life. It can be considered an infectious disease time bomb. For most, the virus stays dormant, remaining silent in the nervous system. However, introduce stress, a weakened immune system or the vagaries of the normal aging processes, and the virus can reactivate years later as shingles. A third of us will contract shingles in our lifetimes.
Shingles manifests as a painful rash that develops on one side of the face or body, which usually clears up within 2 to 4 weeks. Those who have suffered from shingles can tell you the pain ranges from mild to debilitating. Those who experience extreme bouts often describe the pain as the most intense of their lives. The disease can also threaten vision and cause nerve damage which can linger for months or years, long after the initial shingles rash is gone. Very rarely, shingles can lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation or even death.
In yet another milestone for biotechnology, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave the green light last fall to a new shingles vaccine called Shingrix. The vaccine is more than 90 percent effective in preventing shingles for adults 50 and older.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the number of shingles cases continues to rise. Half of all shingles cases occur in people over 60. However, fewer than one-third of people over 60 have been vaccinated for shingles, according to the CDC. Most people who get shingles will have it just once, but it’s possible to get it a second and even a third time. As we age, we become more likely to develop long-term, severe pain as a complication of shingles. There is no treatment or cure from this pain.
One million people get shingles every year. Shingrix – a two-shot regimen – can spare people a lifetime of needless anguish. So can an earlier shingles vaccine called Zostavax, a single-shot inoculation effective in more than half of those who receive it.
There is hope that the next generation of Americans will be less susceptible to shingles. In 1996, the CDC recommended universal varicella vaccination against chickenpox for healthy 1-year-olds. Doctors believe that children who receive the chickenpox vaccination will be at a much lower risk of getting shingles as they grow older. However, kids vaccinated for chickenpox in 1996 are only 21 or 22 now, so doctors can’t say for sure what will happen when they’re 50. Researchers believe if they do contract shingles, it is more likely to be a milder case.
The new shingles vaccine contains an adjuvant, a substance that boosts the immune system’s response. In October, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices endorsed Shingrix for adults over 50. Once the CDC director endorses the committee’s findings, Medicaid and Medicare will begin covering the vaccine later this year.
Biotechnology vaccinations have been among the greatest achievements of the human race, for they represent our ability to prevent suffering and disease rather than mitigate it. Thanks to biotechnology innovation, we’ve moved a step closer to the day when shingles will be moved from the medical books to the history books.