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Shingles vaccine aids prevention of painful disease

Shingles is a skin infection that can cause extreme pain. -
Shingles is a skin infection that can cause extreme pain.
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For 89-year-old Muriel Toombs it was a no-brainer.

Several people in her family had already suffered the excruciating pain of shingles, and there was no way she or her family doctor wanted her to experience the same.

So two years ago when a vaccine against shingles first appeared on the market in Canada, Toombs leapt at the chance to take it.

Fortunately for Toombs and others like her,the herpes zoster vaccine has been approved and licensed by Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization for use in the provinces.

That means pharmacies can purchase and then administer it to people who arrive with a doctor's prescription. And you have to pay for it.

There are no clear recommendations yet on whether the vaccine will become approved under the province's medical plan, says Dr. Paul Hasselback, regional medical officer of health.

"Like other provinces, B.C. has its own process on at deciding at what age the vaccine should or should not be administered under the B.C. Medical Plan," he explained.

But for senior Toombs, the cost - then $150 per inoculation, now close to $200 - was well worth it.

"I didn't even consider not having it," she said.

"It's a great vaccine," Hasselback stressed.

"People who fall within the NACI recommendations should seriously consider taking the vaccine to protect themselves," he said.

If you've had chicken pox, you can get shingles. Most people have had chicken pox even if they don't think they have, he explained. After the chicken pox symptoms subside - whether mild or severe - the virus sleeps in the body.

"Shingles can occur when the body's antibodies against the virus drop," Hasselback explained.

If the virus "wakes up", it can erupt into a rash of fluid-filled blisters within a few days. Worst is the burning, stabbing or throbbing pain that affects almost 90 per cent of shingles sufferers over the age of 60.

And that pain can continue for months after the blisters have healed. The risk of shingles increases with age - about two-thirds of cases occur in people over 50.

"The vaccine boosts the body's existing antibodies," Hasselback said. "And no, this vaccine cannot cause either shingles or chicken pox."

The new vaccine was developed by Merck Frosst and is called Zostavax.

And as with anything new, there are challenges. There are waiting lists for the vaccine at pharmacies in Duncan.

"It's made in the States, then comes through Health Canada, and we get 10 to 20 doses every month or two," said Craig Wolstenholme, a pharmacist at Ingram. "It's become very popular."

"We're short of it and have a huge wait list," said Safeway's pharmacy manager Manjit Dale.

"We're not expecting another delivery of the vaccine until the end of March," he said.

As well, the vaccine has to be kept frozen to a temperature of -15C or colder to maintain its potency. As few doctors' offices have the freezers needed onsite, it will probably be available only in pharmacies for the foreseeable future.

If you're interest in getting the vaccine, talk to your doctor or for if who want to find out where the vaccine is available in our area, visit the Zostavax.ca website.

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