Chicken pox vaccine prevents shingles, too

The Pediatric Insider

© 2019 Roy Benaroch, MD

A study published today in Pediatrics confirms good news about routine chicken pox vaccination in children: it also prevents shingles. Smaller studies had seemed to show this was likely, and this huge new study of over 6 million children nails it down. And: the benefit seems to apply to all of our children, even those unable to be vaccinated.

A little background: chicken pox and shingles are both caused by the same virus, named “Varicella Zoster Virus”, or VZV. When people first catch this very contagious illness, they get a painful and itchy rash accompanied by fever – that’s chicken pox. It’s a miserable experience – I remember when I had it, a summer long ago – that can also lead to complications like pneumonia, life threatening skin infections, and encephalitis. Even when you’ve recovered from chicken pox, the sneaky devil-virus hides in your nerve cells, waiting for an opportunity to swing back into action. And that recurrence of symptoms is what’s known as shingles, or “zoster” – a very uncomfortable rash that can leave lasting pain that can very difficult to control. Zoster especially likes to pop back up when you’re already sick or having other health problems, just to give you an extra poke in the eye.

“Remember me?” VZV says. “Have some pain!”

A vaccine to prevent VZV infections was developed in Japan in the 1970’s. It was specifically targeted at first for children undergoing chemo for leukemia, because so many of them were dying of overwhelming VZV infections (in people with suppressed immune systems, primary or recurrent VZV infections can be devastating.) The vaccine was very successful in saving lives and preventing misery in these children, which led to more-widespread testing in healthy kids and the adoption of widespread chicken pox vaccinations in the 1990’s. Later, it was shown that two doses worked better than one, and the current guidelines in the US recommend two doses be given routinely to all children starting at 12 months of life. This protects not only the children who get the vaccine, but their families and their communities, including people who can’t be vaccinated and children and adults on chemo or other medicines that suppress their immune systems (By the way: there are a lot of these people around. Including some of your friends and their children. Immune-suppressing “biologic” agents are now used routinely to improve the lives of people with psoriasis, Crohn, rheumatoid arthritis, and many other diseases. You’ve got friends, neighbors, and coworkers on these medicines. You can help protect them.)

A fair question to ask: do routine chicken pox vaccines also prevent VZV from recurring – that is, do they prevent shingles? Those studies in immunocompromised children showed it definitely did, but we needed years of data to prove that it was also effective in the broader population, because shingles may occur many years after chicken pox. And now, we’ve got solid data.

This study was done at six sites in the US, mostly in California, following the medical records of 6,372,067 children for 12 years. The results are impressive. First: rates of zoster/shingles dropped dramatically in the whole population, by about 50%, over the 12 years. Even in children who weren’t vaccinated, zoster is boing prevented by the use of this vaccine. But the effect was much larger children who did get the vaccine, and larger still among children who got the full course of two doses rather than one.

Vaccine science is always evolving, and important studies continue – there is always more to learn. All of the good evidence so far had shown that this vaccine was preventing both chicken pox and shingles, and this long-term, huge study adds to the evidence. Make sure your children and your family are up to date on their vaccines, including this chicken pox vaccine, to best protect yourself and your community. We’re all in this together, folks. Do the right thing. Vaccinate.

 

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One Comment on “Chicken pox vaccine prevents shingles, too”


  1. Your post makes me wonder why companies don’t develop shingles vaccines for under 50 years old or people with weak immune system and target only “elderly”.. I heard quite a few stories from people under 50 who had shingles…

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