Antidote: Merck's shingles homerun

Marc Siegel, MD
Marc Siegel, MD

For all the attention in the media about potential side effects of vaccines like Merck's HPV vaccine Gardasil, not enough time or attention has been paid congratulating Merck for its shingles homerun, Zostavax.

How like the media to focus on fear rather than medical advances. Shingles (Herpes Zoster) affects a million people each year in the U.S., and one out of three people in their lifetimes. Since it involves reactivation of a dormant chicken-pox virus, it is hard to prevent and to treat. The rash is painful, and if it progresses to post-herpetic neuralgia, potentially disabling. Before all we could do is use topical analgesics and the anti-viral drug acyclovir to blunt its attack.

Zostavax is the only vaccine available to keep shingles from occurring. Studies from 2003 show that it is 50 percent effective at doing so. The Center for Disease Control recommends that everyone over the age of 60 receive it, and I agree with this recommendation since Shingles can be devastating and half of all cases are in people over the age of 60.

Zostavax is effective for five years, and I recommend it every five years or so for my patients. It is very safe, and even though 50 percent effectiveness is not ideal, it is 50 percent better than no protection.

Merck got a black eye for Vioxx and has been mired in controversy over another effective and safe vaccine, Gardasil. Zostavax, a homerun, should be championed as a great addition to the medical arsenal in the fight against a potentially debilitating opponent.

Though I am waiting and hoping to see Merck congratulated, I promise not to hold my breath.

Marc Siegel, MD, is an internist and professor of medicine at New York University and the author of False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear