Nine out of ten adults are at risk of developing shingles, a viral infection that causes a painful rash. It is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox.
But now there is relief for South Africans who suffer from the condition: a shingles-specific vaccine has recently been introduced in the country.
Studies show that the vaccine – only for people older than 50 – can prevent the development of shingles in up to seven out of 10 people who would have got it had they not been vaccinated. The vaccine significantly reduces the occurrence or severity of pain for individuals who do get shingles.
“Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk of getting shingles,” says Dr Allison Glass, a specialist virologist at Lancet laboratories. “The immune system can suppress and keep the virus under control for many years, but with time and as one gets older, there is a decline in natural immunity and the virus can flair up again, presenting as shingles.”
The risk of shingles increases as one gets older and the likelihood of persistent pain increases dramatically after the age of 50. Pain levels can vary in intensity from mild to severe, where even a light touch or mere breeze crossing the skin can be unbearable.
“Patients describe the pain of shingles in different ways, often as severe and excruciating. Typically it is described as a burning sensation,” says Dr Jody Pearl, a neurologist in private practice in Johannesburg. “Once the pain starts, the impact on your life can be devastating.”
Dr Milton Raff is the director of the Christian Barnard Memorial Hospital Pain Clinic in Cape Town and specialises in treating chronic pain.
“The problem with shingles-related pain,” he says, “is that it is so difficult to treat. Because it is pain resulting from affected nerves that function abnormally, regular pain medications are not effective. We only have a few specialised medications we can try. If these prove to be ineffective, then the pain can be incapacitating. In a small proportion of patients, the pain never goes away. Not only does the patient suffer severe pain, they can often not perform routine everyday tasks.”