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After a six-month shortage, a vaccine that can prevent lingering pain and other symptoms associated with shingles is available in Billings.

RiverStone Health has 300 doses of the shingles vaccine, Zostavax, on hand and can order more, said Tamalee Taylor, a community health services director for the public health agency.

Waiting list

RiverStone has already offered the vaccine to some 350 people who were on a waiting list and is looking for more takers, Taylor said.

People age 60 and older can be vaccinated.

Shingles is a painful condition that can develop in people who have had the chickenpox.

The same virus, called the herpes zoster virus, causes both illnesses. It can lie dormant in the body for years, said Dr. David Graham, an infectious-disease specialist at Billings Clinic.

"We don't really understand why, but it can reactivate," Graham said. "It honestly can be devastating for some people. They can have pain for the rest of their lives."

Herpes zoster hibernates in nerve roots near the spinal cord. When it reactivates, it spreads along the nerves, causing severe pain. The pain can linger even after an outbreak clears up, Graham said.

Outbreak of shingles

A shingles outbreak typically starts with itching skin and a linear rash on one side of the body. The rash is striped because it follows nerves beneath the skin.

Shingles is not contagious, but a person who has not been vaccinated against chickenpox can contract chickenpox from someone with an active case of shingles.

About one in three people develop shingles in their lifetimes, according to the Centers for Disease

Control and Prevention. Half of all cases are in people age 60 and older.

The shingles vaccine has been on the market for about two years. Earlier this year, doses of the vaccine became scarce. Only one pharmaceutical company, Merck, produces it.

"It was a manufacturing problem," Taylor said.

Zostavax is about 51 percent effective at preventing shingles and 55 percent effective at preventing lingering nerve pain after an outbreak, she said.

Many insurance plans cover some or all of the cost of the vaccine. The full price is $194.

Contact Diane Cochran at or 657-1287.

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