Health officials, shingles sufferers recommend anyone over 50 gets new vaccine

Caroline Traynor Chapman has had shingles three times. And she doesn't want anyone else to have to suffer through them even once.

The first time the Stonington woman had shingles, an infection caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, they nearly killed her. Her most recent bout with the virus, in February, left her with painful "hot spots" where her nerve endings were inflamed and kept her away from work for a week.

"You are in pain 24 hours a day," Chapman said. "You want to sleep, but you can't because you're in so much pain."

Last month, she got the first of two shots that make up a new vaccine for shingles that the Centers for Disease Control and Connecticut health officials say is more effective than the first shingles vaccine, Zostavax.

The new vaccine, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline and marketed as Shingrix, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration last October and become widely available at most pharmacies over the past several months.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends anyone age 50 or older should get the Shingrix vaccine, even if they were previously vaccinated with Zostavax.

The CDC reported that Shingrix was 97 percent effective in preventing shingles for adults from 50 to 69 years old who got the two doses of the vaccine, which are supposed to be administered between two and six months apart. The vaccine was 91 percent effective among adults age 70 and older, and it stayed at about 85 percent effective for people over 70 in the four years after the vaccination.

It also protects against postherpetic neuralgia, a common complication of shingles.

The vaccine has been popular as it's rolled out to major pharmacy chains, said Mick Bolduc, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Public Health and the coordinator of the department's vaccine program.

"What I have been told is that there has been a great demand for the vaccine," he said.

Not all primary care physicians carry the vaccine in their office, and many have been directing people to local pharmacies, including staff at offices of Community Health Center Inc., which runs health clinics in New London, Groton and Old Saybrook. Physicians associated with Yale-New Haven's Northeast Medical Group will soon offer the vaccine in their practices, according to Lawrence + Memorial Hospital spokesman Mike O'Farrell.

At the end of April, Chapman got the OK from her doctor and went to a local CVS Pharmacy to get the shot in her arm. The vaccine causes soreness in most people, and sometimes redness and swelling in the spot where they got the shot. It can also cause fatigue, muscle pain, headaches, shivering, fever, stomach pain or nausea.

"I was very sore for a few days later," Chapman said.

A CVS spokeswoman said all Connecticut stores received the vaccine in mid-March.

Bolduc said healthy adults age 50 and up should consider getting vaccinated. Shingrix is more effective for older people than Zostavax, whose effectiveness dropped off in people in their 70s and 80s.

"(Shingrix is) not only effective in the 50s and the 60s, but also with the 70- and 80-year-olds," he said. "You have a vaccine that can protect even the most vulnerable populations."

Not all health insurance plans cover the vaccine, and pharmacies may temporarily run out of the vaccine, Bolduc said.

"Like with any vaccine, people should call ahead ... just to make sure they have it in stock," he said. "(And) folks should check with their insurers."

"Shingles is not something you want to fool around with," he said.

 m.shanahan@theday.com

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