Doctor, pharmacist: Get the shingles vaccine

A shingles outbreak on a person's shoulder

Getting shingles can send you through the roof.

Eric Perry found that out first hand.

“I’ve had shingles; I got it in my 30s,” the owner and pharmacist at The Medicine Shoppe on Wilmington Road said. “It is bad. Even to this day I’ll know exactly where the patch of shingles was because where my shirt will rub the hair on my chest, I can feel it.

“It doesn’t hurt (now), but it’s a slightly numb feeling to tingly to itchy.”

Shingles is a painful, blistering rash that typically takes weeks to clear up, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The shingles virus is present in anyone who has had chicken pox, and the CDC says that not only will 1 in 3 Americans get shingles during their lifetime, but also that the risk of getting the disease increases with age.

Moreover, “the older you are when you get shingles, the more likely it is that shingles will cause nerve damage,” said Dr. Donald Middleton, a UPMC-affiliated pediatrician who also is involved in vaccine research and education. “Shingles can damage the nerve for years and cause intense pain.”

The first line of defense against shingles is Shingrix, a two-year old vaccine developed by GlaxoSmith Kline that has proven 90 percent effective. However, because its predecessor, Zostavax, had an effective rate between only 38 and 70 percent, and because the advisory for receiving the injection was revised downward for 60 years of age to 50, there is an ongoing Shingrix shortage. Waiting lists are common or those wanting to receive the vaccine, especially in Pennsylvania, which is one of three states cited in an October AARP report where Shingrix supplies are spread the thinnest.

Perry, who has been able to get the vaccine in his store only within the last month, has roughly three dozen people waiting their turn to get the injection. However, not many of them are in the 50 to 60 age group.

“I’m pretty sure that’s for financial reasons,” he said, noting that while Medicare covers the vaccine, private insurance carriers “are ridiculously slow to adapt to change. The FDA issues an advisory on something, and it will take six months, a year, sometimes longer for insurance companies to say, ‘Oh, we’re supposed to cover that.’

“When you tell somebody something isn’t covered by their insurance, and it’s several hundred bucks, they’ll usually wait, especially when it comes to a vaccine. They don’t plan on getting shingles anytime soon, so they’ll take their chances.”

MIddleton said there are at least two questions regarding the virus and the vaccine that he commonly fields. The first is, can someone contract shingles from a loved one who has had it.

“Most people already have the virus in their bodies, and they’re not likely to get shingles from someone who has it,” he said. “You would only get it that way if somehow your immune system was sick, like if you have HIV, or if you never had chicken pox, which is extraordinarily rare.”

Question No. 2 is whether a person who has contracted and recovered from shingles needs to get the vaccine.

“Unfortunately, you can get (shingles) again,” he said. “It’s not a great risk; it’s probably one in 20 over a five-year period. But if you want to be absolutely protected, you should get the vaccine.”

The ideal time to do so, according to the CDC, is six to 12 months after recovery, he said.

The CDC also recommends that where Shingrix is not immediately available, people should consider Zostavax, as it will provide some protection until Shingrix can be received. Getting the Zostavax vaccine does not preclude a person from getting the Shingrix vaccine later. In fact, the CDC advises that people age 50 and older should get Shingrix, even if they previously received Zostavax.

More information about shingles is available online at, by clicking on Ask the Experts, and then on Zoster (shingles).

Still, Perry can probably tell you all you need to know.

“It’s horrible,” he said. “So when people say, ‘should I get the shingles vaccine,’ — Yes!”

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Dan Irwin is currently a reporter and page designer. He was most recently the editor. He started with The News in 1978 and spent 10 years as a sports writer. He's a '78 Slippery Rock University graduate with a B.A. in English.

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