Teuila Fuatai

Teuila Fuatai is a reporter for the NZ Herald

Shingles risk on the rise

Liz Stephenson was forced to take about 6 weeks off work when she was first hit with the virus
Liz Stephenson was forced to take about 6 weeks off work when she was first hit with the virus

Having a nasty bout of shingles is becoming more common in New Zealand, with the numbers of those at high-risk of infection on the rise.

According to immunisation expert Dr Stewart Reid, those aged between 45 and 85 have a 40 per cent chance of developing shingles - which stems from the same virus as chicken pox.

Those who lived to see 85 were at even higher risk, with odds moving to one-in-two, he said.

Dr Reid, who works at Lower Hutt's Ropata Medical centre, estimated there were about 20,000 shingles cases each year in New Zealand.

Information on the 19,000 patients registered to the Ropata Medical centre showed about 21 people, aged under 45, got shingles last year.

When looking at patients over 65, the number of shingles cases for the year jumped to 45.

With advancing age being the major risk-factor for infection, Dr Reid recommended anyone over the age of 50 gets the newly available vaccine.

"When you get shingles, you get this rash that's quite painful. The majority of it is on the chest and it can be on the face as well.

"The rash generally resolves in two to three weeks, but you can get ongoing pain for quite a long time.

"If you're under 45, you'll generally get over it reasonably well. It's about 50 that it begins to take off."

The vaccine costs about $200 at the doctor.

According to Statistics New Zealand, the number of New Zealanders aged over 65 will increase to 1.2 million in the next 12 years, making up more than a fifth of the population. By 2061, more than a quarter of New Zealanders will be aged over 65.

Dr Reid said the most severe cases of shingles were in people aged over 65. For those unlucky enough to be hit while still in the workforce, taking time off to get over the debilitating pain it caused was reasonably common.

The devastating effects of the disease were highlighted in the media recently when Labour leader David Cunliffe's former chief of staff, Wendy Brandon, was forced to give up her job after becoming ill with the virus.

"If you were working, the chance of you having to stop working would be reasonably high," Dr Reid said.

Post-shingles pain, which could be quite debilitating and originated from the site of the infection, could also plague sufferers for more than a year - particularly if they were elderly, he said.

Shingles strikes twice

Auckland resident Liz Stephenson suffered two bouts of shingles before opting to be vaccinated.

The 71-year-old from Papakura was forced to take about 6 weeks off work when she was first hit with the virus at age 59.

"It started under my arm and went down to the middle of my back.

"It was very painful and the rash was big and it seemed to be deep. It left quite a lot of scarring in there for quite a while but my doctor said if I go out in the sun ... it would help to heal the skin, which it did."

The pain was so severe around her arms and back, Mrs Stephenson said she was unable to wear a bra.

"The pain seemed to penetrate, and there were 6 weeks where I was ... in bed because I just couldn't do anything."

While she slowly managed to get back to ordinary life, Mrs Stephenson continued to suffer with post-shingles pain for two years.

"Any little thing I had, like a cold, it would then manifest in [pain across my back].

"I just pushed myself; I've got children, I had to carry on as if nothing was the matter."

About four years later, Mrs Stephenson was struck with the virus a second time.

"I got it in the groin. It wasn't as bad. That healed up more quickly and I guess that was because I was more aware with what I got and the fact that I had it before."

Mr Stephenson opted to be vaccinated against the virus about two years ago when a small amount of the vaccination became available in New Zealand.

Since then, she has been shingles-free.

Anyone who has had the rash, or is at high-risk of it should get the vaccine, Mrs Stephenson said.

File photo / NZ Herald
File photo / NZ Herald

Shingles:

• Caused by the same virus responsible for chicken pox

• Shingles manifests when this virus - which has remained dormant in the spinal cord - is reactivated

• Reactivation results when the immune system is weakened, which happens as we grow older

• Advancing age is the main risk factor

• Highly unlikely to result in death, however the pain can be so severe that sufferers consider suicide

• Facial shingles can result in blindness in one eye

• Medication: anti-viral medication and pain killers can be prescribed to sufferers

• Best defence is being vaccinated. In New Zealand, the vaccine comes in a single dose and is available to those over 50. Those wanting more information should speak to their family doctor.

Source: Dr Stewart Reid

- APNZ

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