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Is the shingles vaccine helpful after you’ve had the illness?

If you’ve recently had shingles, getting the shingles vaccine won’t lower your risk of becoming ill again by much, at least in the short term, say researchers. This is because your risk of a recurrence is already low.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

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Once you've had chickenpox, the virus that causes the illness lives on in your nerves, held in check by your immune system. But if your immune system starts working less well, which can happen as you get older, the virus can start reproducing again. This causes shingles.

Shingles causes a rash of small blisters, usually on just one side of the body. The rash can be very painful. Some people also get nerve damage, causing the pain to continue after the rash is over.

The shingles vaccine can help prevent shingles by helping the immune system to respond to the virus. But it's not clear whether the vaccine helps if someone has already had shingles. That's because once you've recovered from shingles, your immune system is strengthened against the virus, so it is better able to keep it in check.

Researchers gathered information on 6,216 people aged 60 and older who'd had one episode of shingles. After they'd recovered, 1,036 people got the shingles vaccine and 5,180 did not. Using medical records, the researchers followed the two groups for an average of two years to see whether those who had the vaccine were less likely to get shingles again.

What does the new study say?

Few people got shingles again whether they had the vaccine or not, with only 29 confirmed cases in both groups. The researchers estimated that, over a year, around 19 in every 10,000 people who were vaccinated would get a second episode of the illness, compared with 24 in 10,000 people who weren't vaccinated.

These findings suggest that the vaccine may slightly reduce the chance of shingles coming back. But because only a small number of people got shingles again during the study, the researchers can't be certain that the difference between the groups wasn't down to chance.

How reliable is the research?

This was a well-conducted study, but we need a larger trial to be certain of its findings. The study also didn't last long enough to say whether having the vaccine might help reduce the risk of shingles returning in the long term.

It's also worth noting that everyone in the study had a relatively healthy immune system. So we don't know if these findings apply to people who may have immune system problems, such as those having cancer treatment.

What does this mean for me?

If you are older and have had shingles, your chance of getting the illness again in the next couple of years is low, regardless of whether you've had the vaccine. This is good news, particularly since the vaccine is currently in short supply in the UK.

In 2010, government advisers recommended that all people aged 70 to 79 should be offered the vaccine. However, not enough vaccine is yet available to start a national programme. The vaccine is available on private prescription.

Published on June 07, 2012

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