Last night I saw a TV ad for an immunization, sold by Merck, that folks over 60 can take to reduce the odds of developing Shingles ( and Span, 2012). I had not heard Shingles mentioned since my aunt developed it back in the 1970’s. The ad said that 1 in 3 persons might develop Shingles and that the odds increase as we age.  Welcome to the “Golden Years.”

Since I had not come across Shingles as a topic of conversation, let alone actual consideration, in almost forever, I wondered about the accuracy of those odds and did a little checking.

However, before proceeding here is a quick primer on Shingles, the disease.

“After you have chickenpox, the virus that caused it, called varicella, [or the vaccination taken to prevent it] remains in your body. It’s always inside you, lying dormant in your nerve cells. At some point later in life, your immune system may weaken, allowing the virus to resurface as Shingles… There is no cure for Shingles. The Shingles rash usually lasts up to 30 days… Shingles can sometimes lead to serious complications. About 1 in 5 people [who demonstrate the disease] end up with postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN. This is long-term nerve pain that may develop after the Shingles rash heals, and it can last for months, or even years.” ( Finally, topical steroids and oral antihistamines can help reduce the itching and there are antiviral medications that may help if administered within 72 hours of onset of symptoms.

Since like 99.5% of us who are currently over 40 have had chicken pox or were vaccinated for it, shingles is hovering in wait for our immune systems to change due some random event. A couple of  studies give insight to the incidence rate. Yawn (2007) found an adjusted rate of 3.6 per 1000 person-years in a sample of adults with higher rates among people older than 50 years. The CDC says that, “The incidence among people 60 years of age and older is about 10 cases per 1,000 U.S. population annually. Brett (2007) interprets these sorts of findings to mean that a 70 year old person has about a 10% chance of developing Shingles over the next decade.

The recently approved vaccine for the prevention of reactivation of varicella-zoster virus (VZV) appears to reduce “the incidence of shingles by 51 percent and the incidence of PHN by 66 percent…”  (NFID) A recent clinical trial (Schmader, 2012), showed reduction of almost 70%. All is not totally rosy as Arroyo (2012) raises the specter of introducing yet another virus to ones system that may activate in some clever new fashion down the way. However, if this new expression takes 30 or 40 years to activate, one need not be too concerned unless life expectancy increase rapidly as well.


  1. Arroyo, JC. Unsettled Issues of Zostavax Vaccine. Clin Infect Dis., 2012, 55, 6, 889-890. First published online June 13, 2012.
  2. Brett, AS. What Is the Incidence of Shingles? Published in Journal Watch General Medicine, November 15, 2007.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Shingles (Herpes Zoster) Clinical Overview.
  4. National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID). Shingles Information for Health professionals.
  5. Oxman MN et al for the Shingles Prevention Study Group. A vaccine to prevent herpes zoster and postherpetic neuralgia in older adults. N Engl J Med, 2005, 352, 2271-2284.
  6. Schmader, KE et al. Efficacy, safety, and tolerability of Herpes Zoster Vaccine in persons aged 50–59 years. Clin Infect Dis., 2012, 54, 7, 922-928.
  7. Span, P. The Shingles Vaccine Returns. The New York Times, 5-15-2012.
  8.  US Food and Drug Administration. Zostavax™ questions and answers. Available at

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