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Shingles vaccine available for plus 50s


Australians may have to wait until well into 2014 or even later to get subsidised access to the world’s first vaccine against the debilitating shingles infection.

Pharmaceutical manufacturer bioCSL has released the first batch of the American-made vaccine Zostavax on the Australian market, allowing adults aged 50 years or more to be vaccinated against the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus, which causes shingles and can lead to post-herpetic neuralgia.

But the protection comes with a hefty price tag, with a single dose of the vaccine costing up to $250.

While Zostavax has been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for use by people aged 50 years or older, it is yet to be assessed by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee for inclusion in the National Immunisation Program or on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Schedule.

The vaccine is indicated for the prevention of shingles in those aged between 50 and 59 years, and in the prevention of shingles and post-herpetic neuralgia and the reduction of acute and chronic zoster-associated pain in those aged 60 years or older.

A spokeswoman for bioCSL, which is distributing Zostavax in Australia under license from the American manufacturer Merck, said the company was “reasonably early” in the process of having the vaccine registered on the PBS. A submission on the product is being prepared for the PBAC, but the committee is not expected to review the application until March next year.

Meanwhile, those seeking protection from shingles are advised to see a doctor to arrange a private prescription. According to bioCSL, the vaccine is now widely available.

bioCSL said shingles was a common yet incurable condition that would be experienced by one in every two adults by the time they were 85 years.

The risk and severity of the condition increases markedly with age.

It is caused by the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus that causes chicken pox in children. Following initial infection, the virus lies dormant in nerve roots near the spinal cord, and can reactivate at any time.

The infection often appears as a painful rash or blisters on the skin, and the associated pain can be excruciating.

In addition to the rash, in 50 per cent of cases shingles can lead to post-herpetic neuralgia, a chronic and debilitating form of neuropathic pain that can persist months or even years after the rash has healed.

bioCSL said that more than 97 per cent of Australians had developed antibodies to the varicella-zoster virus by the time they were 30 years of age, indicating almost universal potential to develop shingles among the adult population.

But Associate Professor John Litt of Flinders University was cited by bioCSL as warning that there was no way to predict who would develop shingles, or when.

Associate Professor Litt said that, in the absence of a cure, vaccination against shingles was an important public health measure.

“The impact of shingles on quality of life is comparable to other chronic diseases such as heat failure, type 2 diabetes and depression,” he said.

Adrian Rollins