New vaccine said to reduce risk of shingles

July 5, 2005

National report -- Findings of a study reported recently in the New England Journal of Medicine indicate that a one-time shot of a vaccine developed by Merck & Co. significantly reduces adults' chances of acquiring shingles, a painful, sometimes debilitating nerve and skin condition.

National report -- Findings of a study reported recently in the New England Journal of Medicine indicate that a one-time shot of a vaccine developed by Merck & Co. significantly reduces adults' chances of acquiring shingles, a painful, sometimes debilitating nerve and skin condition.

Prior to this new development, no vaccine has been available to prevent shingles, which produces intensely painful rashes that can last for weeks.

While drug treatments can shorten the disease's duration, they aren't effective in preventing complications such as long-lasting skin pain. More severe complications can include permanent nerve damage and even blindness if the rash spreads to the eyes. Anyone who has had chicken pox is at risk of getting shingles, which is caused by reactivation of the chicken-pox virus.

The study reports that in a clinical trial of more than 38,000 people over age 60, the rate of shingles among those who were inoculated with the Merck vaccine was about half that of the group who received a placebo shot. Vaccinated subjects who did get shingles reported the experience to be less severe and painful compared with shingles cases in the placebo group, the study says.

Merck researchers, along with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Institutes of Health, studied the live-virus vaccine at 22 locations around the country in people who were considered at risk for shingles because of their age and past exposure to the chicken-pox virus. Based on the findings, Merck applied in April to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to market the vaccine; the agency could approve it as early as next year.

The vaccine, called Zostavax, is basically a stronger version of Merck's chicken-pox vaccine that is commonly given to children. Researchers said complications from the shot were minimal.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shingles affects as many as 900,000 Americans a year. (Merck estimates the number as closer to one million.) The disease is most common in people older than 60 as their immune systems age, and in people with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients or those with HIV. It is not known what causes the virus to resurface in some people and not others.

-- Compiled by Staff Correspondent Bill Gillette