June 3, 2005
HOUSTON - Relief from the painful symptoms of shingles is closer for millions of Americans, thanks to a pioneering study by researchers predominately from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
In one of the largest medical studies involving the VA, researchers found that an experimental vaccine cut the incidence of shingles in half and dramatically reduced its severity for other victims. The Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC) participated in the national, multi-center study, enrolling more than 600 veterans.
“The study found that even when the vaccine does not prevent the disease, it still reduces by two-thirds the chance that a shingles sufferer will be left with tormenting chronic pain that can make even the touch of clothing unbearable,” said Richard Hamill, M.D., principal investigator at the MEDVAMC for the study.
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. After an attack of chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in the nerve tissue. Shingles, a reawakening of the virus, is an outbreak of a rash or blisters on the skin that may be associated with severe pain. Typically, the rash begins at the spinal column and fans out in a wedge across a localized part of the face, chest, arm, or leg. If the affected nerve is the one serving the surface of the eye, the blisters can cause ulcers resulting in blindness.
Although it is most common in people over age 50, anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk for developing shingles. The National Institutes of Health estimates shingles will affect two in every 10 persons in their lifetime and an average of 500,000 people develop shingles each year.
The Shingles Prevention Study, a VA cooperative study representing a scientific collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Merck & Co., Inc., the vaccine's producer, involved more than 38,000 voluntary participants at 22 VA hospitals and university sites, all aged at least 60. Half the participants received the new vaccine, the other half a placebo. The patients were followed, on average, for just over three years, with every rash even remotely suspicious evaluated for shingles. There were no major complications from the vaccine. The study's results were reported in the June 2 edition of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.