The Shingles Vaccine Shortage in 2019: What You Should Know

The United States is experiencing a shortage of the major shingles vaccine, Shingrix. Approximately one in three residents in the United States are at risk of developing shingles, which may be referred to as herpes zoster in a medical setting.

This is problematic for residents who have yet to receive their first dosage of the vaccine or are currently waiting to receive a subsequent dosage to complete the shingles prevention process. While other shingles immunizations are more readily available, such as Zostavax, these alternatives may not prove to be as beneficial as the Shingrix version.

When you contract the shingles virus, you develop a rash across your face, head and body. This rash can be painful if left untreated for a prolonged period of time. In addition to the rash, symptoms include fever, headache and chills. The sooner you receive the shingles vaccine, the less likely you are to contract this common virus. More information about the vaccine shortage, including possible alternatives to Shingrix, is listed below.

What is causing the shortage of the shingles vaccine?

The cause for the Shingrix shortage is attributed to a growing demand for this immunization. Many health care providers are struggling to keep supplies of Shingrix in stock, as there are several million residents across the U.S. who need this vaccine each year. As this number continues to grow, the quantity of the Shingrix vaccine has dwindled considerably due to the fact that each patient must receive two separate rounds of the immunization.

The second Shingrix shot must be distributed to a patient within two to six months of the original dose of the vaccine. This time limit adds another complication, as many patients who miss this window due to the shortage ultimately need to complete the vaccination cycle from the beginning. Additionally, the Shingrix vaccine is the preferred choice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This preference means an increase in demand from physicians across the country hoping to provide the vaccine to their patients.

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Patients that receive the Shingrix vaccine are 90 percent less likely to develop shingles than patients who skip the vaccination or choose an alternative immunization option. Therefore, the quality of the vaccine increases the demand, which consequently decreases the availability of Shingrix across the country. Many medical providers are currently on waiting lists at various distribution centers in an attempt to obtain the shingles vaccine for their patients.

The majority of medical providers are searching for multiple distribution centers in their areas. While this is helpful for patients receiving the vaccine, it also adds to the confusion. Some providers may be approved for more vaccines than necessary, which decreases the amount available to other medical providers. These extra vaccines may eventually be distributed to providers who need additional vaccines, but this distribution takes time.

Are there alternatives to the shingles vaccine?

One of the alternative vaccines to the Shingrix immunization is called Zostavax. This vaccine can help reduce the risk of developing the Shingles virus by approximately 50 percent, which is significantly less than the Shingrix vaccine.

While you may choose to receive the Zostavax vaccine if you are unable to receive Shingrix from your health care provider, there are restrictions on this immunization alternative. Zostavax is commonly recommended for patients who are 60 years of age and older. Alternatively, young children are advised to use the Shingrix vaccine, since their immune systems are more vulnerable than adults.

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Typically, medical providers advise patients who are 50 years of age and older to receive a shingles vaccine since adults within this age range are more likely to develop the virus. Since Zostavax has not been approved for anyone younger than 60 years of age, younger patients may have difficulty receiving this vaccine from their primary care physician.

The only benefit of choosing Zostavax, when applicable, is the one dose required to complete this immunization. Since the Shingrix vaccine requires two doses, it becomes more difficult to acquire for eligible patients.

Do I need the shingles vaccine?

Speak with your health care provider to determine if you are at risk of contracting the shingles virus. The CDC has provided recommendations outlining who must receive the Shingrix shingles vaccine, including:

  • Patients who are 50 years of age or older and are unsure of whether they have previously contracted the chickenpox at an earlier age.
  • Patients who have previously had shingles and have yet to receive immunization against the virus.
  • Patients who have previously received Zostavax for shingles prevention.

Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus, which causes the chickenpox virus as well. While you may be at a decreased risk of developing shingles if you experienced chickenpox as a child, speak with your primary care physician to determine if you need the Shingrix vaccine. Simply having had chickenpox as a child does not mean you are automatically immune to shingles. Some circumstances exist in which receiving the Shingrix vaccine is inadvisable for the patient, including the following examples:

  • Anyone who may be allergic to any of the components in the Zostavax vaccine or the Shingrix vaccine
  • Anyone who has never contracted the varicella-zoster virus before. In these instances, medical providers distribute the chickenpox vaccine in lieu of providing these patients with the shingles vaccine
  • Anyone who is currently pregnant or is breastfeeding
  • Anyone who is currently suffering from a shingles outbreak

In these instances, you must seek an alternative form of treatment or prevention to cope with the shingles virus. If you received one dosage of the Shingrix vaccine but have yet to receive the second dose, then you do receive some form of prevention through the original dosage. However, you must get the second dosage to gain the full benefits from the vaccine. If you are unable to get the second vaccine in time, then speak with your doctor to determine if there is an alternative means of treatment available.

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