Shingles caused them months of intense pain

Mr Yap Yu Keow, 73, and Madam Lee Wai Yee, 65, have something in common - both retirees each suffered from a recent bad bout of shingles and are still in pain.

Mr Yap's attack began more than three months ago with excruciatingly painful rashes on his upper back. He used to carry a pen in his shirt pocket but, because it pressed against his skin, the pain was so bad that he could not bear to carry it in that pocket.

He also had to give up driving, which helped him get about in Johor Baru, Malaysia, where he lives, and enabled him to visit his daughter and her family in Singapore every week.

His daughter, Ms Yap Hui Sien, a manager in her 40s, said the family has spent about $5,000 consulting five doctors and two traditional Chinese medicine practitioners for him.

The fifth doctor, Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre, prescribed medication for nerve pain for what he described as "nerves gone mad".

Mr Yap said: "Before, even the wind would cause me pain. Now, it's slightly better. I hope to be able to sleep better at night now."

The unbearable pain also gave Madam Lee, who had shingles about a month ago, many sleepless nights. "Once, I dreamt that I was being scalded with boiling water. The pain I felt after I woke up was like I was being scalded," she said.

Her shingles started around her waist and spread to her face, neck and head. She also felt very weak and suffered bouts of diarrhoea.

She recalled: "My doctor wanted to ward me. He said this could be dangerous for me. But I didn't want to be warded."

Dr Leong said about 10 to 15 per cent of patients whose lesions spread die. Fortunately, Madam Lee's condition slowly improved over a couple of weeks after she saw Dr Leong, who changed her medication. She still feels pain from shingles but it is slowly receding. She has spent about $1,000, so far, on treatment.

Shingles occurs when the same virus that causes chickenpox, which most people have during childhood, resurfaces later in life. Almost everyone is at risk of shingles as almost everyone has had chickenpox, Dr Leong said.

One in three people older than 50 will get shingles, he added.

Overseas studies show that long-term nerve pain occurs in 10 to 18 per cent of cases and vision loss occurs in 10 to 25 per cent of cases.

But the shingles vaccination made available here in April can protect those who have had chickenpox. Studies have shown that it reduces the risk of shingles by up to 70 per cent and the severity of pain by 70 per cent if shingles do occur, said Dr Leong. Its efficacy drops with age, so it does not work as well for older people.

Mr Yap and Madam Lee wish that it had been available here earlier.

"I wouldn't have had to see so many doctors and I wouldn't have suffered so much," said Mr Yap. Both he and Madam Lee are now considering getting the vaccination, even though they have had shingles.

About 5 to 10 per cent of those who get shingles will get it again, said Dr Leong.

Madam Yap said: "I don't want to suffer the pain again. I will gladly pay the $250 for the vaccination to reduce the suffering."

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