Shingles vaccine now available in Singapore

SINGAPORE - People here can now protect themselves against shingles with the first vaccine against the painful viral disease having been made available in Singapore since April.

Shingles is marked by blistering rashes and occurs when the same virus that causes chickenpox, which most people experience during childhood, resurfaces later in life. About one in three will develop this disease, usually after the age of 50.

The vaccine, which is called Zostavax and costs between $220 and $250, is recommended for those aged at least 50.

It is available at most general practitioners and private specialists, the National University Hospital and Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

Professor Roy Chan, the director of the National Skin Centre, said the effects of shingles can be debilitating. One in five patients will suffer from nerve pain that can last up to months, he said.

But the disease is unpredictable. "The problem is that we don't know who is going to get shingles, when they are going to get it and where it will strike," he said.

National figures are not available for shingles, which is caused by the herpes zoster virus. But the National Skin Centre treats about 150 to 200 patients every year.

There are likely to be more sufferers here as a vast majority of patients are managed by general practitioners, added Prof Chan.

The disease rarely kills, but when it occurs on the face, the person's eyesight may be damaged. The disease develops around the eyes up to a quarter of the time. People with weaker immune systems, such as the elderly and those with organ transplants, tend to be more susceptible.

Infectious diseases specialist Leong Hoe Nam said the vaccine "trains the body to fight" against the virus.

The shingles vaccine, which was first cleared for use in America in 2006, is up to 70 per cent effective and can be given together with the flu vaccine. The effectiveness drops with age, so it does not work as well for people who are older. But even if one contracts the disease after getting the vaccine, the pain will be less severe, according to studies.

"The virus is like a terrorist cell waiting to strike," said Dr Leong, who runs a practice at Mount Elizabeth Novena Specialist Centre. "But now we have something to overcome it."

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