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People over 85 have a 50% chance of developing shingles, yet only a third of 70-year olds have had the free vaccination against this relatively common disease, according to the latest edition of Australian Prescriber.

The vaccine is free for people between 70 and 79 years. It reduces the risk of shingles by over 50% and makes any cases that do occur less severe, Professor Kristine Macartney, Director of the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance said.

According to the Australian Health and Welfare, the shingles vaccine provides the greatest benefit for those aged 70–79 because the incidence of shingles and the risk of developing complications is higher for those aged over 70. The vaccine is much less effective for people aged over 80.

“Most older Australians have had chickenpox at some point in their life, and shingles, also known as herpes zoster, is caused by a reactivation of the chickenpox virus in the body, usually many years later,” said Professor Macartney.

“Someone with shingles experiences a rash, often with pain which can develop into long-lasting, difficult to treat nerve pain,” she said.
“The vaccine reduces the risk of this long-term pain.”

Shingles Facts

  • Anyone who has had chicken pox can get shingles
  • Shingles is characterised by clusters of blisters, which develop on one side of the body in a band-like pattern and can cause severe pain that may last for weeks, months or years
  • More than half of older adults do not understand the seriousness of shingles and its complications
  • Among those who get shingles, more than one-third will develop serious complications- the risk of complications rises after 60 years of age

The National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance stated that the vaccine has a good safety record in Australia, but should not be used by people with a lowered immune system.

A new non-live shingles vaccine, not part of the free National Immunisation Program, may potentially be used for people with a lowered immune system. This vaccine is, however, currently unavailable in Australia due to a limited global supply.