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New, More Effective Vaccine For Shingles Appears Promising

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An experimental vaccine to treat shingles may be a viable solution for most older adults, according to a new clinical trial.

Shingles is caused by a reactivation of the dormant virus behind chickenpox. It is a painful rash on one side of the body or the face that usually clears up in a few weeks. But some patients may develop complications like post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN), which causes even more pain. Around a third of Americans suffer from shingles at any one point, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An existing vaccine for shingles works, but in a limited capacity. This new, experimental vaccine protected around 90% of adults over the age of 70 and its effects were still apparent four years after administration. The current vaccine, Zostavax, decreases the risk for contracting shingles by half and eventually becomes less effective within five years, US Health and World News reports.

Experts said that these clinical trial results were encouraging. GlaxoSmithKline’s Vaccines North America is behind the vaccine’s development. Dr. Len Friedland, vice president of scientific affairs at the company, stated,

This will hopefully have a high level of efficacy [effectiveness] and a long duration.

Dr. Kathleen Neuzil, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Vaccine Development, said that a better shingles vaccine is “welcome.” Neuzil, who co-wrote an op-ed piece published with the study, added, “Shingles is a horrible disease. I’ve seen patients with long-term excruciating pain.” She recommends for older adults to discuss getting the existing vaccine with their physicians. The vaccine is advised for adults 60 years old and up.

After an individual gets chickenpox, the virus – varicella zoster – stays in the body, lying dormant. Friedland explained that, “It goes to sleep in the nerves.” A healthy immune system keeps the virus from doing any more harm. But as people age, the immune system weakens and allows the sleeping virus to wake up. Those who reach the age of 85, Friedland says, have a fifty percent chance of contracting shingles.

Treatments for complications due to shingles are not as effective as they can be, Friedland continued. “So the best way to manage shingles is through prevention.”

The new vaccine uses a weakened live virus to awaken the body’s immune response to the virus, Neuzil said. Called HZ/su, the vaccine uses a piece of the surface of the shingles virus with an added “adjuvant” ingredient that produces a stronger immune reaction.

A previous study had shown that HZ/su decreased the risk of shingles by 97% among people 50 years and older for up to three years.

Researchers tested close to 14,000 adults aged 70 years and older for the study. The participants were randomly assigned to receive either two doses of HZ/su or a placebo. In the next four years, only 23 participants who had received the vaccine developed shingles, compared to 223 of those who took the placebo.

There were short-term side effects like pain at the injection area, some fatigue or muscle pain, but no serious risks, Friedland stated. He said that GlaxoSmithKline will submit an application for the vaccine to the US Food and Drug Administration by the end of the year.

The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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