NPSFriday 28 September 2012, 1:42PM
Media release from NPS
The herpes zoster virus, which causes shingles, is becoming more
common as the population ages. In Australia the number of cases has
doubled between 2000 and 2010. Hospital emergency departments
report a 2-6% increase in cases per year.
Writing in the October edition of Australian Prescriber, Professor
Dominic Dwyer and Dr Michael Wehrhahn, infectious diseases
specialists at Sydney's Westmead Hospital, say the recent rise in
shingles cases is probably due to a number of factors, and urged
more widespread uptake of the herpes zoster vaccine in
"Shingles commonly presents as a painful blistering skin rash on
the abdomen," write the authors. "It is more common in people over
the age of 60, so as our population ages we are likely to see more
of it. Evidence also shows that recurrent attacks of the virus are
more common than previously believed.
"Other reasons for a rise in prevalence are thought to be the
increased use of immunosuppressant drugs - making people more
susceptible to the virus - and the widespread use of the chickenpox
vaccination in children." (Shingles is caused by the same virus as
It is thought that because there is now less chickenpox in
children, older people are not boosting their immunity to the virus
and so may be more susceptible to shingles later in life.
The herpes zoster vaccine, available in Australia and recommended
for people over the age of 60 since 2009, has been shown to reduce
the prevalence of the virus as well as its associated
complications. The vaccine can also be considered for younger
adults, depending on their clinical circumstances. It should not,
however, be given to people with significant immune impairment,
such as those on high-dose steroids, some patients with HIV and
If a person is diagnosed with shingles, an antiviral medicine given
within 72 hours of the onset of the rash can reduce the severity
and duration of the illness.
"It is also important to treat any pain associated with shingles as
early as possible. This can reduce the severity and likelihood of
complications, such as prolonged pain," write the authors.
Although shingles is less contagious than chickenpox, recent
research has found the virus in human saliva, meaning it could be
more contagious than previously thought. People with the virus
should therefore avoid contact with people who may be susceptible,
especially pregnant women and people with low immunity.
Other articles in this issue include shedding new light on
sunscreens and an update on antivenoms.
To read the full article and others visit www.australianprescriber.com