Zostavax vaccine against shingles, anyone?

Zostavax vaccine is now available in Australia. This vaccine helps to prevent  the viral illness known as shingles. From November 2016 it will be offered free to people between the ages of 70 and 79. Others can be vaccinated by their general practitioner at their own expense.

I will be be the first in the queue. I’ve had shingles. I don’t want to experience the illness again.

Shingles rash which may be prevented by Zostavax vaccine

Shingles rash which may be prevented by Zostavax vaccine

What are shingles?

According to Medical News Today,

 ‘Singles is an infection of a nerve and the surrounding skin surface that is supplied by the nerve, caused by the varicella-zoster virus. This is the same virus that causes chickenpox and anyone who has recovered from chickenpox, child or adult can get shingles.’

Shingles causes pain and a rash along a band of skin supplied by an affected nerve. It can occur in a band around the abdomen or chest or elsewhere. The acute stage lasts for between two and four weeks. Full recovery takes longer. Ageing increases the risk of contracting the illness.

I had not heard of the Zostavax vaccine.

But I discovered recently that shingles is no joke. I found the hard way that the disease is painful, debilitating and distressing. It affected my trigeminal nerve. The viral illness had sudden onset. Then a painful scabby rash spread across one side of my forehead, on to one eyelid and into my hair. The rash followed  the route of the nerve from just above my ear. I became sensitive to light and unable to read. The horrid nerve pain (like electrical shocks) affected my sinuses, throat and ear on one side.

Trigeminal nerve

Trigeminal nerve

And was it inconvenient?  Let me tell you how inconvenient it was! I anticipated April and May would be exciting, busy months for my family and me. 

Taking to my bed is not an option I would ever choose. But especially not at such a time. I fretted that I was missing out on things. Not being able to drive was a total bore. Needing to rest every afternoon as I recovered was tedious. Relying on so heavily on John seemed unfair to him, even though he was uncomplaining and comforting.

Some reasons why shingles was so annoying

  • My new great-grandchild was due any moment. I wanted to be there to congratulate my granddaughter and her husband.
  • I wanted to begin to bond with this new baby as soon as he or she was born. Fortunately, he was in no hurry to be born.

    A timely recovery meant I could visit our newborn great-grandson

    A timely recovery meant I could visit our newborn great-grandson

  • Another granddaughter is being married next month. I wanted to be well and energetic for that. (And to be involved in preparations if I was invited.)
  • John will turn eighty on 13 May. Week-long festivities begin on 7 May. I have responsibilities!
  • I fretted about making a fruit cake in time.
  • I need to shop for new finery for the celebrations.
  • We are planning an overseas holiday. I couldn’t think straight for a few weeks.
  • As usual, I was looking forward to attending some social events. A film night. A book launch. I missed them.
  • I am committed to several ’causes’ and did not want to miss meetings.

I also discovered, not for the first time, that general practitioners do not always take the illnesses of older people as seriously as they should. The ongoing disregard for the wisdom of seniors about their own health appals me. I’ve written about this before. It is one of the themes in my book, Elopement: a Memoir.

If someone who has contracted shingles is given anti-viral medication within 72 hours of onset, symptoms can be greatly relieved. The GP at the after-hours clinic was not convinced when I explained my symptoms. She declined to prescribe anti-viral medication. Instead, she diagnosed trigeminal neuralgia (which of course, is part of shingles). She prescribed an anti-convulsive medication used for epilepsy.

By the following Monday when normal doctors were back at work, it was too late. The shingles had to run their course. I was very angry.

Now I am recovering. I hope the scars on my face will fade. I am able to wash my hair again. I can read and drive short distances. I plan to be back in the pool soon, and walking longer distances every day.

Benefits and risks of Zostavax vaccine

Zostavax vaccine is a safe vaccine which helps to prevent the occurrence of shingles. It is less effective the older a person is. If shingles do occur in spite of vaccination, the pain and rash are less severe. Post herpetic pain which can be set off by trivial stimuli is less likely to occur.

People with a  compromised immune system should not be given the vaccine.

Many people query the use of vaccination. However, I am one of those people who has seen first hand the effect of diphtheria, whooping cough, tuberculousis and polio. I nursed patients who died of those diseases. My children suffered through measles and chickenpox. They were unwell  and missed school. Thanks to immunisation and vaccinations, these illnesses are no longer a ‘normal’ part of childhood.

If Zostavax vaccine can protect adults from  unnecessary suffering, why not take advantage of it?

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7 thoughts on “Zostavax vaccine against shingles, anyone?

  1. I’d let the GP who missed the diagnosis know so she doesn’t misdiagnose someone else—your presentation doesn’t sound atypical, and antivirals aren’t terribly expensive nor do they have troubling side effects, probably fewer than the anti-epileptics. Look at it as doing her and her future patients a favour.

    • That’s a good idea, Louise. Thank you. I think about letting people know about ‘non-optimal’ service as a quality assurance measure. I don’t know why I didn’t argue at the time – but I did feel wretched when I was talking to her. I hope my blog helps others to be more assertive with medical practitioners.

  2. Thanks Maureen – have marked it on my
    doctor list’ for next time I visit – which should be soon. So glad you are feeling a bit better.

    • Yes, feeling a lot better, thanks, Elizabeth. I think the Zostravax is fairly expensive at present, but free after November this year.

  3. Oh, Maureen – I am so sorry to hear that you have had that awful experience – I, too, have had shingles (twice) and my father had the one that you’ve just gone through – I truly sympathise, and hope you feel well enough to go to BookClub (but you must not overdo things). Love, Coral

    • Thanks, Coral. I can’t imagine going through shingles twice. Once in a lifetime, I say, for this experience. I’m feeling much better, though, thank you. Not feeling like exerting myself much, I must admit, but very much looking forward to the book club on Monday week. See you there.

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