A few years ago I took my three year old son on a steam train. At the start of the trip he was subdued, by the end he was covered in spots; ‘The Train Spotted Me’, he wailed.
His nursery wouldn’t let him back for over a week; meanwhile other parents contacted me requesting chickenpox parties! Their reasoning was ‘better to have it when you’re young, as the older you are the worse it is’.
That may be right; but what people don’t realise is that shingles is the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus, the cause of chickenpox. It is a common misconception that if you have had chickenpox you are immune to the virus for life, but it actually lies dormant in the nervous system and can reactivate when the immune system is weakened.
Shingles is a painful, itchy, burning blistering of the skin which affects an area on one side of the body; most commonly the chest but sometimes the head, chest or eye.
It can last up to four weeks and one in five people go on to develop nerve pain called post herpetic neuralgia in the affected area of skin. Whilst it is not possible to catch shingles from someone with shingles or chickenpox, it is possible to catch chickenpox from someone with shingles, if you have not had it before. Also shingles can occur more than once in your lifetime.
As people age their immune system naturally weakens, which is why people aged 70 and older are more likely to get shingles. Over 70’s are also more likely to suffer from shingles for longer; it is often more painful (so much so that just clothes brushing against the affected area can cause terrible pain) and can be fatal in one in 1000 cases.
There is no cure for shingles, but there is a vaccine that can help prevent people from developing shingles in old age. Almost everybody gets chickenpox, so there is a strong chance of many people developing shingles in old age. Having a simple, quick one off vaccination is a good way to help protect yourself and help prevent the unpleasantness of shingles.
Over 70’s are also more likely to suffer from shingles for longer; it is often more painful (so much so that just clothes brushing against the affected area can cause terrible pain) and can be fatal in one in 1000 cases.
The shingles vaccine is free on the NHS to all people aged 70 and currently those aged 78 or 79, as part of the catch-up programme. In time the programme will work towards offering immunisation to all 70 to 79 year-olds.
Unlike the flu vaccine (offered yearly to those eligible), you only need the shingles vaccine once and it is available at any time of the year. Once vaccinated you will be protected for at least five years; although it may still be possible to get shingles, it will be less severe and short lived if you have had the shingles vaccination.
As principle advisor for immunisation and vaccination services in London, I am concerned about the low uptake of the shingles vaccine among Londoners, which is currently around 40%. I want to encourage the eligible population to get vaccinated and protect themselves against this painful virus that can cause severe pain and suffering.
If you are 70, 78 or 79 speak to your GP or a healthcare professional to arrange a vaccination.
The current programme ends on 31 August 2015 and Public Health England will be announcing the additional age cohorts that will be eligible for vaccination as part of the 2015/16 programme, over the coming weeks.