I urge everyone over 50 to vaccinate against shingles. Zostavax vaccine, which helps to prevent the viral illness known as shingles, has been available since 2016. In Australia, it is offered free to people between the ages of 70 and 79. Others can be vaccinated by their general practitioner at their own expense.
While this is not actually about booster vaccines, it is about vaccinations, and relevant. I originally wrote why older people should vaccinate against shingles in 2016, but it’s an important area of health care, and needs to be spelled out often.
I’ve had shingles. I experienced severe illness for almost a month. I don’t want it again and don’t want anyone else to suffer from it. According to Medical News Today,
Shingles 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.
Why we should vaccinate against shingles
Shingles is an infection of a nerve and the surrounding skin surface that is supplied by the nerve, caused by the varicella-zoster virus. It usually occurs in a band on one side of the body or head.
This is the same virus that causes chickenpox and anyone who has recovered from chickenpox, child or adult, can get shingles. However, people over 50 and those with compromised auto-immune systems are especially vulnerable.
My experience of shingles
I had not heard of the fairly new Zostavax vaccine. But I did discoverthat there was nothing to joke about with shingles. Instead, I found the disease is painful, debilitating and distressing.
The viral illness had sudden onset and affected my trigeminal nerve.
At first my scalp felt prickly when I touched it. Then a painful, scabby rash spread across one side of my forehead and temple, on to one eyelid and into my hair. The rash followed the route of the nerve from just above my ear.
Sensitive to light, I couldn’t read and preferred to lie in my bedroom with the curtains drawn. The horrid nerve pain (like an ongoing series of electrical shocks) affected my sinuses, throat and ear on one side.
You would not believe how inconvenient that illness was!I anticipated April and May 2016 would be exciting, busy months that year for my family and me.
A new great-grandchild was due and I wanted to be there to congratulate my granddaughter and her husband when he or she. I also wanted to begin to bond with this new baby as possible. As luck would have it, baby Edward was in no hurry to be born.
I was looking forward to the wedding of another granddaughter. We were to celebrate my husband’s eightieth birthday. I needed to make a fruit cake and shop for finery in time for the celebrations.
Planning for an overseas holiday had preoccupied me, but I couldn’t think straight for weeks. Commitments to several ’causes’ were put on hold and I missed meetings, book launches and a luncheon.
I would never choose to take to my bed, but especially not at such a time. I fretted that I was missing out on so much. Not being able to drive was a total bore. Needing to rest every afternoon as I recovered became tedious. Relying on so heavily on John seemed unfair to him, even though he was uncomplaining and comforting.
The role of the general practitioner
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 appalls me. I’ve written about this before. It is one of the themes in my book, Elopement: a Memoir and I wrote a blog, ‘Doctor shopping to combat ageism’.
The first line of defence against this illness is to vaccinate against shingles. However, if someone who has contracted the virus is given anti-viral medication within 72 hours of onset, symptoms can be greatly relieved.
The general practitioner at the after-hours clinic was not convinced when I explained my symptoms and declined to prescribe anti-viral medication. Instead, she diagnosed trigeminal neuralgia (the pain which is, of course, 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. This caused anger and anxiety because I knew what it would mean.
Of course I recovered, and would wash my hair again, to read and drive. My strength returned slowly. The scars on my face still show, now five years on.
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 compromised immune systems should not be given the vaccine.
Many people query the use of vaccinations generally. However, I am one of those people who has seen first-hand the effect of diphtheria, whooping cough, tuberculosis and polio. I nursed patients who died of those diseases. My children suffered through measles and chickenpox. They were very unwell and missed school. Thanks to immunisation and vaccinations, these illnesses are no longer a ‘normal’ part of childhood.
If it is possible to vaccinate against shingles with Zostavax to protect older adults from unnecessary suffering, why not take advantage of it?