UK residents aged 70 or over may be eligible to take advantage of a new vaccination programme which is being launched in September. The healthcare initiative is being introduced to help lower the incidence rates associated with shingles in the country.
The NHS estimates that three in every 1,000 people are affected by the condition each year, with prevalence highest in the over-50s. The infection is caused when the herpes varicella-zoster virus, which causes chicken pox, is reactivated later in life.
A vaccination called Zostavax can reduce a person's chance of contracting the condition by 50 to 70 per cent, according to the healthcare provider, although patients today will usually have to fund the jab privately.
However, the new programme will see over-70s, who are most prone to complications, routinely administered the vaccination. BBC News reports that 800,000 elderly people in England will be protected in the first year alone.
The vaccine works by introducing a weakened form of the virus into the recipient's body. This allows the immune system to generate antibodies which destroy the disease without threat of serious infection.
Memory cells retain the coding information required to produce these pathogen-fighting proteins, and are activated in the event of reinfection. This means that the immune system is more quickly equipped to fight off the virus.
It should prevent many people from suffering the symptoms, which include exhaustion, a painful rash and fever, as well as complications such as transverse myelitis (inflammation of the spinal cord) and scarring of the cornea.
Since the vaccination should help to prevent many hospitalisations, the Department of Health estimated that the programme will save the organisation £20 million per year. It is thought that the scheme will cost £25 million annually to implement.
University of Bristol's Professor Adam Finn told the BBC: "There's a cost involved in both buying and giving the vaccines but there's also enormous savings from all the disease that you prevent. Not only suffering and some deaths but also all the costs of hospitalisation, not to mention all the inconvenience, people taking time off work to look after their children and so on and so forth."