A vaccine to prevent the often painful and debilitating shingles vaccine will be offered free for over-65s to 80-year-olds next year at the same time as their annual ‘flu jab.

Pharmac announced last week that it will fully fund the shingles vaccine Zostavax for 65-year-olds from April 1 next year and also fund a catch-up programme for people aged 66-80 years until March 2020.

It is envisaged that people will receive their Zostavax vaccine the same time they receive their annual influenza vaccine but it will only be available at general practices and not pharmacies at this point. Pharmac said some concerns were raised during the consultation process about the extra workload the shingles vaccine could bring in an already busy time for general practice but it believed the net overall impact would be positive as it would reduce the incidence of shingles and the more serious complications that can arise for older adults.

Pharmac director of operations, Sarah Fitt, said the vaccine would make a big difference to the one-in-three New Zealanders who would have at least one attack of shingles in their lifetime.

“Shingles can occur in people at any age but older people are the most affected and complications can be more serious and require admission to hospital,” Fitt said.

“While most cases of shingles can be managed at home, these attacks can sometimes lead to other serious health complications. Some people may continue to experience pain for months to years after an initial shingles attack.”

Shingles is caused by the same virus as chickenpox, varicella-zoster. Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk of developing shingles later in life, although the most significant risk factor for developing shingles is age.

During the consultation some respondents had called for the vaccine to be available for people younger and older than the selected 65-80-years-old age range.  Pharmac said its Pharmacology and Therapeutics Advisory Committee considered the costs and benefits of different age bands and opted for age 65, plus catch-up vaccinations to the age of 80 years, as the clinical evidence showed that vaccine efficacy dropped to 18 per cent in people aged over 80 years at time of vaccination.  Also that the vaccine efficacy waned over time and if people were vaccinated when younger than 65 they might not remain protected when they were older when the incidence of the herpes zoster virus was higher and the risk of complications also higher.

Fitt said the shingles vaccine would help to reduce the number of serious cases, and provide many flow-on benefits to families and whānau as well as the wider health system.

Zostavax will be available from general practices from 1 April 2018.

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