What Seniors Should Know About the Shingles Vaccine Shortage

The shortage of Shingrix appears to be due largely to an unprecedented demand for the drug.

There has been a shortage on a shingles vaccine that can provide 90 percent protection. Getty Images

In recent years drug shortages have become an increasingly common headache for both medical providers and patients.

Now medical providers have been dealing with a shortage of the vaccine that helps protect against shingles. 

Shortages of the shingles vaccine Shingrix have been ongoing across the United States, with many people hunting from place to place or joining call lists to find it.

“We probably have turned people away and that’s only because of the limited supply that is out there. Shipments come into our facilities, once they are used up we are just waiting for the next shipment,” Julio Viola, director of centralized pharmacy services at Northwell Health System, told Healthline.

“Even in our surrounding area of pharmacies are out of stock also. They are just keeping waiting lists for those patients that need the vaccine,” he said.

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The shortage of Shingrix appears to be due largely to an unprecedented demand for the drug. 

Produced by pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in October 2017, Shingrix is a highly effective shingles vaccine — and much more protective than prior vaccine Zostavax.

Zostavax reduces the risk of developing shingles by about 50 percent and is given in a single dose. Shingrix on the other hand requires two shots, with the second occurring within two to six months of the first dose, and is upwards of 90 percent effective. 

Zostavax is recommended only for those 60 and above, while Shingrix is approved for individuals 50 years and older. 

As such, Shingrix is the preferred shingles vaccine of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

However, because of the vaccine’s two-dose system, patients need more of the vaccine than Zostavax. 

“Shingrix has been met by unprecedented demand by healthcare providers and patients,” said Sean Clements, a spokesperson for GSK, in an email to Healthline. “Providers are immunizing patients at a rate several times what was previously seen for shingles. Because of this demand, patients may find their provider or pharmacy is temporarily out of stock. They should check back often or ask the pharmacy to contact them when they are restocked.” 

According to data provided by GSK, roughly 7 million doses of Shingrix have been administered globally since November 2017, with the vast majority of them occurring in the United States. 

More than 70 percent of patients who have received Shingrix complete both doses as recommended. 

In response to the demand, Clements said that GSK is now shipping large volumes of the vaccine twice a month and are planning on bringing significantly more doses to the United States for 2019 compared to this year. 

Shingles, also known as herpes zoster, affects about 1 in 3 people in the United States during their lifetime, with about 1 million cases of the disease each year. Anyone who had chickenpox as a child is at risk of developing shingles later in life, and the risk of developing shingles increases with age. 

Shingles is a painful rash that can develop on the head, face, or body. The rash typically scabs over in 7 to 10 days and clears up completely within 2 to 4 weeks. Other symptoms of shingles can include fever, headache, chills, and upset stomach.

Severe complications of the disease can include loss of vision, severe pain known as postherpetic neuralgia, and brain inflammation.

Below, Healthline answers some of your urgent questions about shingles and the shingles vaccine:

Who should get the shingles vaccine?

The CDC recommends you should get the shingles vaccine Shingrix if you:

  • are age 50 or older and unsure if you’ve had chickenpox (the varicella zoster virus that causes chickenpox also causes shingles)
  • have had shingles before
  • have previously received Zostavax

Who should NOT get the shingles vaccine?

Do not get the shingles vaccine if you:

  • may potentially be allergic to components in either Zostavax or Shingrix
  • have never had varicella zoster virus before (instead, get the chickenpox vaccination)
  • are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • currently have an outbreak of shingles

What should I do if I’ve only received one dose of Shingrix and cannot locate a second dose?

Don’t worry. While the efficacy of a single dose of Shingrix has not been demonstrated, it should provide some protection until your next dose, according to Viola. You should seek out a second dose within two to six months of receiving the initial dose.

Is it safe to get both the Shingrix and Zostavax vaccine?

If you previously received Zostavax it’s actually recommended that you get both doses of the Shingrix vaccine because it’s more effective. Likewise, if you are unable to locate Shingrix because of the current shortage, getting Zostavax in the meantime should provide some protection.

How can I find where the Shingrix vaccine is available?

Check with your doctor or pharmacist about current inventory and about being notified through a call list. Certain websites such as the Shingrix vaccine locator and HealthMap vaccine findercan also help you search for stock of the vaccine from your computer. However, these sites may not carry the most up-to-date information.

Why is this shortage happening now?

The simple answer is that there is just not enough supply to match demand. There is nothing “seasonal” about shingles. “This is a vaccine as a preventative measure for shingles but you don’t know when shingles is actually going to strike,” said Viola.

“The good part about this is it’s not an epidemic of shingles,” he added.

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