Fall is flu vaccine season, but if you’re 50 years old or older, there’s another vaccine you might want to ask a health professional about getting.

Shingrix represents a promising breakthrough in protecting adults against the virus commonly known as “shingles.”  Following its approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in late 2017, Shingrix has been lauded as a significant advancement in vaccinology, and has replaced Zostavax as the recommended shingles vaccine for adults over the age of 50.

The improved efficacy and longer duration of Shingrix is considerable when compared to the previously recommended shingles vaccine, Zostavax. In clinical trials, Shingrix was more than 97% effective in preventing shingles in adults between 50-69 years of age, and 91% effective in adults 70 years and over.

In contrast, Zostavax was 51% effective in preventing shingles in people 60 years and older. While effectiveness of both vaccines will decrease over time, Shingrix boasts an 85% efficacy rate after four years, whereas Zostavax efficacy decreases between 15-25% one year after vaccination.

It’s no surprise then, that the increased efficacy has resulted in a constant demand since Shingrix hit the market in early 2018. GlaxoSmithKline, the British pharmaceutical company that manufactures Shingrix, is reportedly overwhelmed by orders and continues to be challenged by limited supply. Consequently, doctors and pharmacies have had to manage unpredictable deliveries of Shingrix with waiting lists and dosage reserves in order to accommodate the two-dose recommendation.

Local doctors and pharmacies are reporting that they’re experiencing the same issues. The Shingrix vaccine can be administered at Stop & Shop, CVS and Lang’s Pharmacy, but it’s wise to call ahead as all three have had gaps in access at certain points in recent days.

Western CT Medical Group’s newly-opened medical practice at 249 Danbury Rd./Rt. 7, offers Shingrix but cautions about the nationwide shortage. “We recommend that patients interested in the vaccine call ahead to inquire about availability. They should also speak with their physician about the best option for them,” says Nicole Blye, clinical coordinator at WCMG Wilton Primary & Specialty Care.

What is Shingles?

Shingles is a viral infection caused by the varicella zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. For adults who have endured chickenpox, usually as a child, the virus lies dormant in the nerve tissue near the spinal cord and brain. Years later the virus may reactivate, causing shingles.

In the simplest form, shingles can lead to a painful rash that develops on one side of the body, which is preceded by pain, itching, numbness or tingling in the area. Symptoms may also include fever, headache, chills and an upset stomach. Shingles typically lasts between two- to four weeks, and in some cases, pain lasts after the rash has cleared up, causing post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN).

Shingles has the reputation as an irritating rash afflicting primarily seniors, but the reality is that younger adults also can suffer from the virus. However, older patients are more likely to suffer more significant complication from shingles. Generally not considered life threatening, more serious complications may include stroke, encephalitis, nerve damage and loss of vision.

That’s a prime reason why Dr. Maura Sparks, an Internal Medicine Specialist with Stamford Health Medical Group in Wilton, is urging her older patients to take the Shingrix vaccination as well as following the FDA recommendation of administering Shingrix to adults over the age of 50.

“It really makes the most sense to make sure that our oldest patients are vaccinated, then work backwards. Efficacy of Zostavax really wanes each decade. By the eighth decade, Zostavax is about 14% effective.  Shingrix is 90% effective.  And your risk of a painful shingles outbreak is much higher as you age.”

For potential recipients, Sparks recommends vaccine planning and being aware of the potential side effects of Shingrix, as with all vaccines. According to the CDC, potential side effects of the Shingrix vaccination include:  fatigue, muscle pain, headache or nausea, and usually resolve on their own within 2-3 days. One in six people who received the Shingrix vaccination experience the side effects.

“The difference with this vaccine is the CDC does advise that because there are so many local reactions and systemic vaccine reactions, if you have anything important to do in the 2-3 days following the vaccine you may want to postpone the vaccine.”

The US Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends two intramuscular doses, two- to six months apart to all adults 50 years and older, including people who have had shingles, received Zostavax, or are unsure as to whether or not they have had chicken pox. As with any medical treatment, seek the advice of a doctor before any course of action.