The panel recommends the vaccine for people 60 and older.
ATLANTA (AP) -- An influential government advisory panel recommended Wednesday that Americans 60 and older get vaccinated against shingles, an excruciatingly painful rash caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox.
The recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices usually are accepted by federal health officials, and they influence insurance companies' decisions on which vaccinations to cover.
Shingles is a blistering skin rash that is most common in older people. It usually goes away after four weeks, but one in five sufferers develops severe long-term nerve pain known as postherpetic neuralgia. Complications also can include scarring and loss of vision or hearing.
Antiviral medications are of limited help, and some doctors say such drugs do not prevent shingles from progressing into postherpetic neuralgia.
Licensed in May
No vaccine was available until May, when the Food and Drug Administration licensed Zostavax, made by Merck & amp; Co. The vaccine is a souped-up version of Merck's chickenpox vaccine for children, with a live virus that is 14 times more potent.
Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus. An estimated 15 percent to 30 percent of people infected with the chickenpox virus develop shingles later in life.
The virus essentially hibernates for decades in nerve cells around the spine. It reactivates in some patients, probably because the body's immune system weakens with age, doctors say. But the new vaccine appears to hold the virus in check.
The FDA's approval of the vaccine was based largely on a study involving more than 38,000 people, with 19,000 getting the actual vaccine and others getting a placebo. People who got the shot developed shingles at only half the rate of those who got the fake vaccine.
Zostavax is not recommended for pregnant women, people with allergies to gelatin or other vaccine components, or those whose immune systems have been compromised by such things as AIDS or chemotherapy.
Merck said it has sold about 11 million worth of the vaccine since it came on the market.
The single-dose vaccine costs about 150 per shot. Some health insurers now cover it; the committee's recommendation is likely to increase the number that do.
Lorraine Bailey, a 78-year-old shingles sufferer in Atlanta, developed a painful, red, welty rash on the right side of her face last fall.
"It's like your face is on fire, even with the pain medication," Bailey said. "I would have the vaccine, yes."
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