If you’re over the age of 60, you’ve probably been told that it’s time to start thinking about the shingles vaccine, Zostavax. This vaccine is intended to help reduce the risk of shingles. For those who develop the condition despite being immunized, Zostavax may help reduce the severity and duration of the outbreak.
Not everyone has a positive response to the Zostavax vaccine, however. In February of 2017, a Nevada woman filed a new Zostavax lawsuit against manufacturer Merck & Co., stating that the vaccine caused her to suffer serious injuries. She assets that Merck failed to provide adequate warnings about the risk, and points to scientific studies that link the vaccine with infections and other complications.
What is Shingles?
Shingles is a painful nerve infection that creates a nasty, painful rash on the skin surface. It’s caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. Over the years, it lays dormant in the body until it is reawakened in response to a reduced immune function.
Symptoms of shingles include acute pain, tender skin, a blistering rash, fluid-filled blisters, and scarring. Each episode lasts about 2-4 weeks.
What is Zostavax?
The FDA approved Zostavax in May 2006 for the prevention of shingles in individuals 50 and older, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wait until 60 or older to take it. The vaccine is a live virus vaccine that is delivered by injection. Currently, it is the only shingles vaccine available in the U.S.
The FDA states that for people aged 60 and older, the vaccine reduced shingles by about 50 percent. The drug’s effect was found to be highest for those aged 60-69, with its effectiveness declining with increasing age. In those who developed shingles after receiving the vaccine, the vaccine was found to slightly reduce the duration of pain.
Zostavax Linked to Serious Side Effects
Since its approval, Zostavax has been linked to various health problems in medical reports. Based on these reports, the FDA required the company to add additional warnings in the product labeling.
In August 2014, for example, the FDA required Merck to add “infections and infestations” to the possible side effects of the drug. In February 2016, Merck added “eye disorders” in patients taking immunosuppressive therapy to the list of possible adverse reactions. Plaintiffs involved in Zostavax lawsuits, however, assert that even this updated information is inadequate to warn of the true nature of the vaccine’s risks.
The Nevada woman who filed a Zostavax lawsuit claims that after receiving the vaccine, she developed headaches, dizziness, blurred vision, and later suffered right eye injuries along with increased blood pressure.
Merck acknowledged the vaccine’s potential risk of eye damage in 2016 when it changed the label per the FDA’s instructions. Specifically, the vaccine has been linked to necrotizing retinitis, which is an inflammatory condition that is caused by the herpes virus. It causes redness, floaters, and decreased sharpness of vision, and can lead to detachment of the retina and blindness. Symptoms were found to develop in immunized adults within 24 days of vaccination.
Studies have also linked Zostavax and other infections, like chickenpox. In 2011, for example, researchers found that individuals who were immunized with Zostavax continued to have the virus in their skin and saliva for up to 28 days after vaccination. Since the vaccine is a live virus, there is a risk of transmitting it to others for at least a month after vaccination.
The researchers noted that transmission of the virus “has not been found among vaccine recipients,” but stated that those receiving the vaccine remain a potential source of transmission.
There is some evidence that individuals with autoimmune diseases may be at a higher risk for serious Zostavax side effects. In March 2017, the Australian Government Department of Health warned that it had received a report of one death in a person with pre-existing compromised immune function. The Agency reminded healthcare practitioners: “Zostavax should not be used in people who are immunocompromised, as this is associated with a risk of mild to serious complications (including death) from infection with the vaccine virus.”