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HEALTH REPORT - April 16, 2003: Shingles - 2003-04-16

This is the VOA Special English Health Report.

American researchers say the vaccine medicine that can prevent the disease chicken pox may also provide protection against a painful nerve condition called shingles.

Shingles is also known as herpes zoster. It is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. The virus remains in the body’s nerve cells after the chicken pox disappears. Shingles develops if the virus becomes active again many years later.

It is not clear why this happens. Medical researchers think a temporary weakness in the body’s defense system may permit the virus to move along nerves to the skin. Most people who suffer shingles are more than fifty years old. People with weakened defense systems against disease are also more likely than others to develop shingles.

The first sign of shingles is a burning pain on the skin. The skin becomes red after a few days and enlarged areas appear. These swollen areas become hard. Then they disappear after a few weeks. These skin blisters are not a problem unless they appear on the face near the eyes.

However, the pain continues after the skin is healed. The pain can continue for months or even years. This is why doctors consider shingles a serious health problem. As many as one-million people in the United States develop shingles every year. Doctors treat it with pills or pain- killing substances placed on the skin. But these treatments are not always effective.

Chicken pox was common among American children until the vaccine was approved in nineteen-ninety-five. Researchers for the company that makes the vaccine says the virus used in the medicine appears less likely than the natural virus to remain in the body’s nerve cells. This could mean that children who get the vaccine for chicken pox may be less likely than others to develop shingles later in life.

Some researchers think the vaccine seems to increase the ability of the body’s defense system to suppress the virus. Now, a large study is taking place to test if a stronger chicken pox vaccine can prevent shingles in healthy adults, or at least reduce the pain. The study involves more than thirty-eight-thousand people over the age of sixty. The results are expected next year.

This VOA Special English Health Report was written by Nancy Steinbach.