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Health Beat — Take This

Shingles Vaccine Protects Many

If you can get your hands on it, that is

En español | If you had chicken pox as a child — and most of us did — then you're at risk for getting an excruciatingly painful rash called shingles as a 60-plus adult.

The good news: A new study says the shingles vaccine is even more effective than previously thought at cutting your risk.

And the bad news: Hardly anyone can get the vaccine.

Shingles, or Herpes zoster, is a virulent rebound of the chicken pox virus, which lies dormant in the spinal cord's nerve roots and can flare up during times of stress or illness when we're older. If left untreated, shingles can cause long-lasting pain and nerve damage, especially among those in their 80s.

A new study of more than 300,000 older adults, published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that the shingles vaccine cuts that risk by 55 percent.

Even better, the study showed that the vaccine is effective in preventing ophthalmic shingles — a particularly dangerous manifestation of the virus that can damage eyes and even cause blindness.

The researchers, who conducted the study from 2007 to 2009 among patients with Kaiser Permanente in Southern California, also found that the vaccine helped those 79 and older — the age group most likely to get shingles and to be most severely affected by its side effects.

"This vaccine has the potential to annually prevent tens of thousands of cases of Herpes zoster," the researchers wrote in the study's conclusion.

Study coauthor Rafael Harpaz, M.D., a medical epidemiologist with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), added in an interview that the benefits could even be higher: "Half a million adults 60 and older get shingles annually. The vaccine could cut that number in half."

Just one problem: Only a paltry 10 percent of seniors get the vaccine because of what Harpaz calls a frustrating "witches' brew" of barriers. First and foremost, drug company Merck hasn't been able to manufacture a steady supply of the shingles vaccine. Shortages were a problem throughout 2010, and currently the company's website says the vaccine is back-ordered and won't be available until April or May.

And then there's the cost, which can range from $160 to $300 if your insurance doesn't cover it, and many plans don't. Although the shingles vaccine is covered under Medicare Part D, the government plan makes it easy only if you get your shot in a pharmacy (assuming you can find one that stocks it). If you want to get the vaccine in your doctor's office, Medicare makes it more difficult.

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