1 in 3 will get shingles - there's a new free vaccine for over 65s

From November 2023, over-65s in Australia and First Nations people over 50 will get the shingles vaccine for free - but should people under the age of 65 pay up to $560 to protect themselves?

Vaccination can be a controversial topic, but so too is shingles, a debilitating virus that lurks in our systems after chicken pox. Around 1 in 3 Australians will experience shingles in their lifetime and for 20% of those people, something called post herpetic neuralgia (PHN) leaves them with nerve pain that doesn't go away. Should you get the new vaccine?

Shingles starts as a painful rash but can turn into a nerve-damaging problem that takes months or years to resolve.

The Australian Government has announced it will give all Australians aged over 65 the free Shingrix vaccine from November 1, 2023, to tackle the complicated public health problem of shingles.

The announcement means all older Australians, as well as First Nations people over 50 and immunocompromised people, will get free access to the new vaccine, but it will cost other people around $560.

Previously, a different shingles vaccine called Zostavax had been free for people aged 70 to 79, but the newer Shingrix vaccine is said to be more effective.

The decision to replace the older Zostavax shingles vaccine with Shingrix on the National Immunisation Program was based on recommendations from the independent Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee and the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation.

Should you get the new Shingrix vaccine?

People need to talk to their doctor about shingles vaccination. Everyone has different health needs and medical history.

The Australian Government does recommend people over the age of 50 are vaccinated against shingles, which means that if you want to get it you can pay out of pocket for it after consulting with your doctor.

Health Minister Mark Butler told a press conference that shingles can leave people with “ intense debilitating pain that can last for months or even years, or even the rest of a person's life”.

He said shingles is a “serious public health menace” in Australia.

"Hospital operators have said to me that shingles and issues associated with shingles among older Australians is presenting in their hospitals with increasing frequency," the minister said.

The new Shingrix vaccine is about 90% effective for older Australians in preventing shingles, compared to the older vaccine Zostavax effectiveness of 40%.

Healthdirect publishes the latest Australian health guidance on shingles and vaccines, which recommends everyone over 50 gets vaccinated.

What causes shingles

Shingles is more likely to affect Australians over the age of 50 who have previously had chicken pox. The chicken pox virus lurks in the system and reactivates as shingles.

The Australasian College of Dermatologists says the virus can lie dormant in nerve cells and may be reactivated by stress, illness, immunosuppression, older age, trauma, radiotherapy and contact with another person with varicella or herpes zoster.

A person with shingles may experience burning pain, stinging, itching or a change in sensation in affected skin. The person may also have a fever and feel unwell.

The shingles rash starts with redness of the skin followed by blisters, usually on the chest, neck, abdomen or face.

The acute shingles phase commonly settles over a 3-week period. Then it is followed by crusting and healing, and sometimes scarring.

The shingles rash is usually sensitive to touch and appears around a skin nerve known as a dermatome.

It's the complications of shingles that are the problem

After the acute phase of shingles, the real worry is post herpetic neuralgia (PHN), which is persisting pain in the area affected by the shingles rash.

PHN can last for months or years and can be debilitating. The PHN pain has been described as a continuous or intermittent burning sensation sometimes accompanied by numbness or increased sensitivity. There may also be a persistent itch.

Vision impairment involving the ophthalmic nerve can also be a complication of shingles, according to the Australasian College of Dermatologists.

There is another potential complication called Ramsay Hunt syndrome which results in earache, hearing loss, dizziness, tinnitus and rash around the ear.

The information on this page is general information and should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Do not use the information found on this page as a substitute for professional health care advice. Any information you find on this page or on external sites which are linked to on this page should be verified with your professional healthcare provider.

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