Shingles a debilitating disease, but vaccination can provide protection

By Dave Flaherty/Active Senior’s Digest

What began as a simple feeling of tiredness turned into months of debilitating pain for Anne Van Burek.

This past February, Van Burek became one of the estimated 130,000 Canadians who are afflicted with shingles on a yearly basis.

“I noticed I had two small blisters on my hand and some red patches on my right arm,” Van Burek recalled.

Once she was given the diagnosis of shingles, Van Burek says she was “devastated” and disease temporarily turned Van Burek’s life upside down.

“I basically couldn’t use my right hand and right arm. The pain was just unbearable – I couldn’t screw the top off the toothpaste tube.”
In turn, this pain caused Van Burek, who is in her 60s, to have to take a leave from her job as a teacher, and daily life became a struggle.

“I was really in a condition where I could not function,” Van Burek stated. “My husband, he was there for me doing absolutely everything. I couldn’t even lift a pot or a plate. Had I been on my own I don’t know how I would have managed.”

Although she has recovered to a fair extent and returned to work, Van Burek still feels pain every day and admits her anti-viral medication makes her very tired.

Shingles come as a result of the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus, the cause of chickenpox, in the body. Once a person has gotten over chickenpox, the virus can sit dormant in the nerve cells for decades.

Those over 50 years of age and those who have a weakened immune system are most susceptible. Symptoms of shingles include:

• Pain or bruised feeling – usually on one side of the face or body – often along with a fever, chills, headache or upset stomach. People will often feel unwell for several days before the rash appears.

• Tingling, itching or prickling skin, and an inflamed, red skin rash several days later.

• A group or long strip of small, fluid-filled blisters.

• Deep burning, searing, aching or stabbing pain, which may occur once in a while or last a long time.

One in 10 people diagnosed with shingles will also develop a complication known as post-herpetic neuralgia, which can cause severe nerve pain which lasts up to three months after the rash has cleared up.

The first shingles vaccine, known as Zostavax, was approved in 2011 for administration to individuals 50 to 59 years of age and has been found to decrease cases of shingles in those who have already had chickenpox by 50 per cent and post-herpetic neuralgia by nearly 70 per cent.

A new vaccine, Shingrix, developed by British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) was approved for distribution in October.
Dr. Susie Barnes, vice-president and country medical director at GSK Canada, says her company has been working on the vaccine for a number of years and it is geared towards people over the age of 50.

Barnes says throughout an extensive clinical trial involving 37,000 people, including 2,000 across Canada, Shingrix was shown to prevent shingles at a 90 per cent rate across all age groups and may be more effective in treating older adults.

Shingrix is scheduled to be available in January 2018 but Barnes was unable to say how much the vaccine would cost, although she estimated it wouldn’t be more than 30 per cent higher than Zostavax, which runs at about $170.

Ontario is the only province that covers the cost of Zostavax but Barnes says she is hopeful both the provincial and federal governments will see the benefits of Shingrix.

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Van Burek confirmed she would be getting the vaccine as soon as she is able and asks others to do the same.

“I’ll definitely recommend to everyone,” she adds.