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Preventing Shingles

A painful, blistering rash, shingles attacks an estimated one million Americans each year. Also known as herpes zoster, shingles is caused by the chicken pox virus and can develop in anyone who has had chicken pox. The chicken pox virus remains dormant in nerve root cells of the body. Ten percent of people who had chicken pox as children get shingles as adults, usually after age 60.

UK professor of internal medicine Richard Greenberg was one of several researchers nationwide whose work on an experimental vaccine to prevent outbreaks of shingles was featured in The New York Times last June. The researchers reported that the vaccine can reduce incidence and severity of shingles by more than half, and that the development of this drug could spare hundreds of thousands of older Americans from this painful disease. Results of the five-and-a-half-year study were published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

This unusually large clinical trial involved more than 38,500 people over age 60. The study was conducted by Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country. At UK, 1,167 subjects were enrolled, says Greenberg, who has a joint appointment with UK and the Lexington Veterans Administration.

Michael Oxman, an infectious disease specialist in San Diego who headed up the study, says widespread use of the vaccine in that age group could prevent 250,000 cases of shingles a year. Merck, developer of the vaccine, has applied for FDA approval.

“The Shingles Prevention Study was a significant breakthrough for everyone who looks forward to retirement and many years of ‘postponed’ fun, enjoyment, travel, and family,” Greenberg says. “Without the vaccine, the pain and suffering caused by shingles can last the remainder of their lives.”

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