WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. health officials on Thursday recommended that people 60 and older get Merck & Co Inc’s vaccine Zostavax to protect against shingles, a viral infection that causes a painful, blistering rash.
The risk of getting shingles — caused by the same varicella-zoster virus responsible for the common childhood illness chicken pox — rises with age starting at around age 50, and is highest among the elderly.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it is recommending a single dose of Zostavax, the only vaccine to prevent shingles, for people age 60 and older, even if they have had a prior episode of shingles.
The agency said the recommendation replaces a provisional one it made in 2006 after the vaccine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and recommended by a CDC advisory panel of immunization experts.
The CDC said researchers have found the vaccine cuts the occurrence of shingles by about 50 percent in people age 60 and older. For people ages 60 to 69, it cuts the occurrence of the disease by 64 percent, the CDC said.
About a third of all people in the United States will get shingles, including half who reach age 85, the CDC said.
There is no cure for shingles, also known as herpes zoster. After a person has had chicken pox, the virus remains dormant in the body, and years later can reactivate as shingles.
“It is a nasty, life-altering affliction. Although the vaccine is not perfect, it’s pretty good,” Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, vice president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, said in a telephone interview.
“The pain can be mild to very severe. The rash illness itself can be on any part of the body. It’s usually on the trunk, but can be on the face — in which case it can involve the eyes, and so it can threaten vision,” Schaffner said.
The rash generally abates in two or three weeks, but pain can persist in some patients for months, Schaffner said.
More than 43 million adults over the age of 60 in the United States are estimated to be at risk for shingles.
Dr. Jane Seward, deputy director of the CDC’s division of viral diseases, said she hopes the agency’s recommendation will encourage more people 60 and older to get the vaccine.
“The vaccine provides an exciting new tool for preventing shingles and its serious complications,” Seward said.
It took the CDC 18 months to make a final recommendation after its initial, provisional recommendation, she said.
“It took longer than we would have liked. In the future, we’re doing what we can to avoid delays,” Seward added.
Merck said in a statement that more than 50,000 physicians’ offices, pharmacies and public health clinics have ordered Zostavax since the FDA approval.
Merck said that health insurance plans covering about 94 percent of privately insured Americans have approved reimbursement for the vaccine.
Merck also said Zostavax is eligible for reimbursement under the government’s Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, and health plans covering more than 90 percent of people enrolled in the Part D benefit are reimbursing for it.
The company also said that Zostavax is part of its Vaccine Patient Assistance Program in the United States in which Merck makes available for free various vaccines to adults who are uninsured and unable to pay for them.
In afternoon New York Stock Exchange trading, Merck shares were up 11 cents to $39.94.
Editing by Gerald E. McCormick