More needs to be done to raise awareness among Kiwis of a potentially debilitating disease, according to a local vaccinologist.
The call comes as new research shows more than two thirds of New Zealanders aged 50+ say they have little to no knowledge of the shingles virus.
Shingles is a viral infection caused by the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes chickenpox. Even those who appear healthy but are aged 50 plus are at risk of developing shingles.
Almost all adults aged over 50 already have the virus that causes shingles in their body due to an initial chickenpox infection. Around a third of these will develop shingles in their lifetime when the virus reactivates.
Most commonly, the shingles rash or blisters wrap around one side of the torso. Shingles can also be intensely painful, and the disease is associated with a range of complications which for some people can include vision loss, cardiovascular and stroke events, hearing loss, scarring and neurological problems.
When damaged nerve fibres send confused and exaggerated messages of pain from skin to brain, patients can be impacted by long term pain - known as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). Around a third of people with shingles may develop PHN, which can last for months or years. The condition is more likely to occur in older patients and can be associated with depression, anxiety and weight loss.
Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, Associate Professor, Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care at the University of Auckland, says along with on-going pain and possible secondary infection, in rare cases shingles can be fatal for some patients.
“Our immune system ages and while normally it is pretty good at keeping the virus from activating, as we age or undergo stress it can reactivate. Shingles is a reactivation of latent chickenpox virus that can be a really nasty illness and result in hospitalisation. It can be incredibly debilitating even for healthy people, but there is greater risk of complications in those with underlying disease, cancer for example, and may even result in death,” says Dr Petousis-Harris.
“Shingles typically presents as a painful, itchy rash which develops on one side of the body, or the trunk but can then be disseminated to other parts of the body including the eye and that can be very serious and even result in loss of sight.”
Dr Petousis-Harris says New Zealanders aged 50+ who have been exposed to chickenpox during their lifetime should consult their GP about how to prevent the development of shingles.
Shingrix is a new vaccine for the prevention of shingles and post-herpetic neuralgia in adults 50 years of age and older and is expected to be available in New Zealand from March. Shingrix is the first approved shingles vaccine to combine a non-live antigen with a specifically designed adjuvant to trigger a targeted, strong and sustained immune response. The vaccine is proven to have over 90 per cent efficacy against shingles in all age groups 50 plus in clinical trials, and sustained efficacy for at least seven years post-vaccination, which continues to be monitored. As with any vaccine, a protective immune response may not be elicited in all vaccinees.
Brett Marett, Medical Director at GSK NZ says bringing innovative medicines and vaccines to New Zealand is a core focus.
“GSK NZ is very proud to make this shingles vaccine available in NZ. GSK has been at the heart of research into how the immune system declines as we age, and we know that more prevention options are needed. We are thrilled that with the supply of Shingrix into NZ, we will be able to help protect more New Zealanders from shingles,” says Brett.
“GSK is committed to bringing innovative solutions to the people who need them most, and today’s announcement is evidence of that.’
Shingrix is a non-live, recombinant subunit vaccine given intramuscularly in two doses. It will be available via a private prescription from a medical doctor for people aged 50+.