The 6-year-old shingles vaccine is one of the newest immunizations on the market and also one of the most popular, which has created a persistent manufacturing shortage.
The shortage surfaced almost immediately after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that most Americans over age 60 get vaccinated to prevent shingles.
The vaccine, licensed in 2006, can prevent shingles, a painful skin rash that often appears with blisters. In clinical trials, the vaccine prevented shingles in about half of people 60 years of age and older, according to the CDC. The vaccine can also reduce the pain associated with shingles.
"The demand has been huge," said Tamalee St. James, community health services director at RiverStone Health, Yellowstone County's public health agency. "We have given literally hundreds of these vaccinations."
At least 1 million people each year in the United States get shingles, according to the CDC. Fifty percent of people living to age 85 will develop shingles.
A shingles rash usually appears on one side of the face or body and can last from two to four weeks. The primary symptom is pain, which can be debilitating. Other symptoms can include fever, headaches, chills and upset stomach. Though rare, shingles infection can lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, encephalitis (brain inflammation) or death.
For about 1 in 5, severe pain can continue even after the rash subsides.
June Mayra, 83, of Billings is the 1 in 5. She has suffered with shingles for more than four years. The vaccine was not available to her. It had barely been introduced and was not available throughout Montana when she contracted the disease.
In May 2008, as Mayra cared for her gravely ill husband and her stress level soared, she found herself in significant pain. She had a debilitating headache on the left side of her head and felt as though knives were piercing her forehead, eye and back of her skull. Her daughter, Kathy Hall, took her to the emergency room. They left with a "headache" diagnosis.
Thirty-six hours later, blisters surfaced on the left side of her forehead, upper eyelid and stretched to the back of her head. It was the initial onset of shingles.
The blisters resolved but she has struggled with "post herpetic neuralgia," constant itching and burning that is so debilitating she even tried a nerve block to alleviate the pain. Topical and oral medications have offered little relief. She relies on two to three ice packs during the night to keep symptoms at bay so she can sleep.
Her left eyebrow is non-existent due to her constant rubbing and scratching. Her left eye is constantly red, tender and sore.
"If there was a way to prevent it, I'd surely do it because this is no fun," Mayra said.
Her message, and Hall's, is for anyone who is eligible for the shingles vaccine to consider getting it.
"If there is a possibility of preventing an outbreak, it is a wise investment," Hall said.
The vaccine is available at RiverStone Health and at some local pharmacies and drug stores. Depending on where you get it, it can cost anywhere from $189 to $225 or more. The vaccine is covered by most insurance companies.
Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. Only someone who has had the chickenpox, or has gotten the chickenpox vaccine, can get shingles. The virus stays in your body. It can reappear many years later to cause a case of shingles.
Shingles is not contagious, according to St. James. However, a person who has never had chickenpox, or the chickenpox vaccine, could get chickenpox from someone with shingles. It is not very common, she said.
Shingles is more common in people 50 and older. It is also more common in people whose immune systems are weakened because of a disease such as cancer, or drugs such as steroids or chemotherapy.
The vaccine, like any medicine, could possibly cause serious problems, such as severe allergic reactions. However, the risk of a vaccine causing harm, or death, is extremely small, according to the CDC. No serious problems have been identified with shingles vaccine.