Finally, enough shingles vaccine to go around — for older folks only

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Greg Opitz, of Richfield, is careful not to do anything to trigger another episode of shingles, a painful virus that affects one in every three people. At age 52, Opitz is eight years shy of the recommended age for getting the shingles vaccine, as determined by the federal advisory committee on immunization practices.

Although the vaccine is approved for people age 50 and older, shortages have plagued medical professionals, leading the committee to keep the recommended immunization age at 60 and older. Introduced in 2007, Zoster is the only federally approved shingles vaccine on the market.

“The ability to acquire the vaccine has been spotty since 2007,” said Kristen Ehresmann, Minnesota Department of Health director for infectious diseases. Previously, some people were turned away because the vaccine was not available, but not anymore.

“Finally the supply is catching up with the demand,” Ehresmann said. “We’ve got it. Come get it.”

Zoster, manufactured by Merck, is a weakened live strain of the virus that is given as a shot in the upper arm during the one-time vaccination.

Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes the chicken pox, which was a common childhood disease until a chicken pox vaccine was introduced in 1995. The virus lies dormant in people’s nerve cells. If reactivated (typically by too much stress or a lowered immune system), it manifests as shingles, forming pustules along a person’s nerve pathways.

A doctor diagnosed Opitz with shingles on his forehead about 10 years ago.

“My immune system was down because I’d gotten too much sun,” he said. Shingles can be particularly dangerous on the face if it follows the optic nerves, affecting the eyes. If immunized, Opitz could prevent reoccurrences.

Symptoms include aching, burning or tingling feelings. The blisters break or scab over within 7-14 days, but the nerve pain can last weeks or months, Ehresmann said.

“It’s an equal opportunity virus,” she added, meaning nearly anyone is susceptible. Older people may be more at risk simply because their immune systems are weakening. The virus has to run its course and the effects can be treated with over-the-counter pain medication.

Becoming vaccinated to prevent a shingles outbreak is the best remedy, Ehresmann said. The MDH has information about shingles on its website, or visit your local medical clinic or pharmacy for more information.