Zostavax (zoster vaccine live) is designed to protect adults ages 50 and older from shingles. It is manufactured by pharmaceutical giant Merck and is usually given in a doctor’s office or pharmacy. Adults receiving the vaccine are receiving a dose of the weakened chicken pox virus. It is intended to boost the immune system’s protection against herpes zoster, also known as shingles.
Shingles are caused by the same virus as the chickenpox (varicella-zoster virus). After children get the chickenpox, the virus retreats and lies dormant in the body for years. The virus will reactivate years later in nearly 30 percent of adults in the U.S. and cause shingles.
Shingles is a painful, itchy rash that often occurs on only one side of the body. Doctors are not sure why the virus can reactivate in adulthood, but some people choose to get vaccinated against the virus to decrease their chances.
Despite being the first shingles vaccine approved by the FDA, Zostavax is not the preferred vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Zostavax shingles vaccine is only shown to be about 51 percent effective.
The CDC prefers a newer vaccine called Shingrix over Zostavax. Shingrix is shown to be up to 91 percent effective, compared to Zostavax’s 51-percent effectiveness. While shingles is rarely a life-threatening condition, it can potentially lead to dangerous complications. These complications can include postherpetic neuralgia (PHN)—severe pain where the shingles rash developed, which can be debilitating and last for several weeks to months, possibly even years.
Zostavax does help protect against PHN, with clinical trials showing the vaccine reduced the risk of PHN by about 67 percent, but Shingrix still protected against PHN better than Zostavax, reducing the risk by over 90 percent.
In addition to PHN, shingles pose a risk for other serious complications. Adults who develop shingles may be at risk for:
- Vision Loss
- Hearing Loss
- Brain Damage
Adults with a weakened immune system and other risk factors may be at an increased risk for developing shingles. Adults who have had chickenpox may be more likely to develop shingles if they:
- Have a disease that lowers the body’s immune defenses such as HIV or cancer
- Are 50 years of age or older
- Are under a lot of stress
- Have had physical trauma
- Are taking long-term medications that can weaken the immune system, such as steroids