Oct 09, 2023

Older people granted free access to new, more effective shingles vaccine

About one in three people will develop shingles in their lifetime and nearly all adults aged 50 years and older carry the inactive virus that causes shingles. [Source: Shutterstock]

Key points:

  • Herpes zoster, also known as shingles, is caused by the reactivation of varicella-zoster virus (VZV), the same virus that causes varicella (chickenpox)
  • Post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) is the most common complication of shingles that causes a burning pain in nerves and skin. The pain lasts long after the rash and blisters of shingles go away. The risk of postherpetic neuralgia rises with age and mainly affects people older than 60
  • Two doses of the Shingrix vaccine is used to provide strong protection against shingles and PHN, the most common complication of shingles

The Federal Government has granted older and immunocompromised Australians free access to a new and more effective shingles vaccine from next month.  

The non-live vaccine Shingrix will be listed on the National Immunisation Program (NIP) for the prevention of herpes zoster (HZ) and post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) from November 1 – the first non-live vaccine to be listed on the NIP for the prevention of shingles and PHN. 

Non-live vaccines do not contain live viruses so they cannot replicate in the body and do not cause disease, even in people with weakened immune systems.

The Shingrix vaccine will replace the Zostavax vaccine on the NIP following advice from the independent medicines experts at the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee and the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation.

Health and Aged Care Minister Mark Butler announced the Federal Government’s move to invest $826.8 million to provide the vaccine under the NIP at a press conference in Adelaide on Sunday.  

“This is a very serious public health menace that we can front in Australia.” 

In adults 50 to 69 years old with healthy immune systems, Shingrix was 97% effective in preventing shingles. In adults 70 years and older, Shingrix was 91% effective.

Those eligible for the Shingrix vaccination via the NIP include:

  • Individuals 65 years of age and older
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals aged 50 years and older
  • Immunocompromised individuals aged 18 years and older with conditions at ‘high risk’ of shingles. These conditions include haemopoietic stem cell transplant, solid organ transplant, haematological malignancy and advanced or untreated HIV

Giulia Jones, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Painaustralia, said the pain of shingles is often described by its members as, “The worst they have ever experienced. Often these people are already in pain due to other health issues, and if they develop ongoing complications, their life can be very uncomfortable.”

Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney and infectious diseases expert, Robert Booy, said the NIP listing is a positive step forward by the Government in helping vulnerable Australians. 

“Shingles can be serious, and in some cases can result in patients being impacted by debilitating, long-term effects […] if they experience post-herpetic neuralgia, the pain can linger long after the rash and blisters have disappeared,” he explained. 

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