What is shingles and why do we need to vaccinate against it?

World Immunisation Week (24-30 April) celebrates the value of vaccines and how they save millions of lives across the globe every year. Here we look at one of particular interest to older people – the shingles vaccine.

Male patient talks to consultant
Man talking to a consultant

The theme of World Immunisation Week this year is #VaccinesWork – which aims to encourage anyone from any area of society to champion the importance of taking up the offer of vaccination in order to prevent themselves, their family and their community getting very serious diseases.

We all know that new-born babies get offered a routine schedule of immunisations to protect against nasty diseases are that luckily now rare in the UK, including diphtheria polio, and tetanus to name just a few.

But vaccines are not just for babies.

As we age and go through different life stages, there are different vaccines which we become eligible for based on how vulnerable we are to certain illnesses.

This week, we are shining a spotlight on the shingles vaccine, which is offered to older adults aged 70 and 78.

The shingles vaccine is fairly new compared to other immunisation programmes – it first began rolling out in 2013 – which was the same year that Public Health England was first formed.

It’s shown to be highly effective against preventing shingles itself and also long term chronic pain, which is one of the most common complications associated with shingles.

Shingles (medically known as Herpes Zoster), develops when the dormant chickenpox virus becomes re-activated in the body. It is not ‘caught’ from other people with chickenpox or shingles.

We can assume that nearly 100 per cent of people have caught the chickenpox (varicella) virus at some point in their lives. Children nearly always catch it at some point, but may not always display symptoms, and can therefore have it and have recovered from it without parents realising. Therefore, everyone is at risk of shingles.

Shingles can strike when people’s immune systems are particularly vulnerable, for example after having flu or going through an element of trauma. But it can also happen randomly when a person might otherwise seem healthy.

The name of the disease might sound strangely pleasant, but shingles is no laughing matter. It can cause severe pain for individuals and can have debilitating effects for months and, in rare cases, it can kill. About 50 deaths are caused by shingles every year. Some people never fully recover from the effects of shingles and are left with ongoing nerve pain, or post-herpetic neuralgia.

Sometimes, people with shingles cannot bear to have anything touching their skin as it’s too painful – including clothes or water. You can therefore imagine how drastically it can impact someone’s life.

In the UK we vaccinate people between the ages of 70-80, as this is when people are more likely to develop the illness. We invite people on their 70th and 78th birthdays, and anyone who has been offered the vaccine can receive it up until their 80th birthday. You can request the shingles vaccination when visiting your GP surgery, or phone up to book an appointment to receive it.

Shingles is slightly different to other vaccines. As it is not an infectious disease, protecting others offers no indirect protection to individuals through herd immunity. The only way to stop as many people getting it as possible is to ensure all eligible people are vaccinated.

Vaccines are a purely preventative concept – and when it comes to nasty illnesses like shingles, prevention is always better than cure.

If you know someone who could be eligible for the shingles vaccine, why not have a conversation reminding them about the fact that they can request it from their GP at any time. It might just save them from months of pain in the future, or even save their life.