Herpes Vaccine Underutilized

Christina Lasich, MD Health Pro June 29, 2009
  • Recently, the United States Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices officially recommended that adults older than 60 years of age should be immunized against the herpes zoster virus (Varicella Zoster). This vaccine is called Zostavax and is made by Merck. The vaccine is not meant to prevent the initial infection by this virus which causes chicken pox. The vaccine is a "booster" and meant to prevent reoccurrence in the form of shingles. In fact, 98% of adults are infected by the Varicella Zoster virus. The virus remains latent in the body and can reoccur at any opportune time. Zostavax has been found to prevent 50% of all Zoster episodes that occur later in life at increasing severity as one gets older. Even if the vaccine does not absolutely prevent all episodes of shingles, it most certainly reduces the severity of an outbreak because the immunized individual has an immune system boost and ready to fight. 

     

    The advisory committee's recommendation for the herpes vaccine also extends to individuals who may have already had an episode of shingles. The hope is to prevent future severe episodes of shingles. Of course, there are those who are not advised to be immunized by this live form of the virus, mainly those in an immunocompromised state (i.e. taking high dose steroids, chemotherapy, or AIDS treatment). The ultimate goal of this immunization campaign is to reduce the overall occurrence of Postherpatic Neuralgia (PHN) which can be very devastating, especially in the very elderly (a growing population). Experts claim that Zostavax can reduce the risk for PHN by two-thirds. Because of the difficulty in controlling pain caused by PHN, the focus has shifted to preventing it.

     

    Despite the potential benefits of this new vaccine against herpes zoster, less than 2% of the eligible population has received the vaccine since it was approved two years ago. The vaccine is covered under Medicare plans and most private insurances. The advisory committee hopes that as this information becomes available more providers and patients will seek to prevent episodes of shingles and one of the leading causes of nerve pain-Postherpatic Neuralgia. Prevention of pain can be worth a pound of cure.