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Shingles patients at increased stroke risk

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Doctors have warned that people who have contracted shingles need to vigilant for signs of stroke in the first six months after catching the virus.

A UK study has found the virus is an independent risk factor for stroke and other blood clot events in the first six months after contracting the disease.

Herpes zoster, more commonly known as shingles, is classified as the nerve rash in adults caused by reactivation of the chicken pox virus, and there are almost 100,000 GP consultations for shingles in Australian each year.

The UK study examined more than 6500 case of shingles in adults and found stroke was 63 per cent more likely to occur in the month following the initial shingles diagnosis.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said although stroke was an unlikely event following a case of shingles, GPs should be aware of the association.

The researchers said the study had important implications for shingles vaccination programs which, in addition to reducing the incidence of shingles, may have the potential to reduce strokes following the virus.

In Australia, the herpes zoster vaccine is not currently on the National Immunisation Program and people who wish to get the vaccine have to do so at their own expense. The vaccine is also in short supply and can be difficult to access.

The UK study is not the only study to link shingles and stroke. Research published in the journal Neurology earlier this year also found that shingles was a risk factor for stroke, independent of other risk factors known to cause vascular events including obesity, smoking and high cholesterol.

The researchers found that the increase in risk was up to 70 per cent for some, and that people younger than 40 years of age who had shingles were 74 per cent more likely to have a stroke than those who had not suffered the rash.

The researchers analysed data from more than 450 general practices in the UK between 2002 and 2010. Almost 107,000 cases of shingles were found among the 3.6 million active patients.

Lead author Dr Judith Breur from the University College London said that people younger than 40 years were significantly less likely to be asked about vascular risk factors than older patients.

“Anyone with shingles, and especially younger people, should be screened for stroke risk factors,” Dr Breur said. “The shingles vaccine has been shown to reduce the number of cases of shingles by about 50 per cent. Studies are needed to determine whether the vaccination can also reduce the incidence of stroke and heart attack.”

The first study was published online in the Clinical Infectious Disease journal.

Kirsty Waterford