The number of cases of “excruciatingly” painful shingles is rising — but many central Albertans can’t afford the vaccine.
Red Deer senior Betty Wulff said she wants to get vaccinated to prevent the disease after seeing how much her neighbour has suffered from shingles — a painful blistering rash caused by the varicella-zoster virus.
The 90 per cent of Canadians who had chicken pox as children are at risk of having this same virus flare up again as shingles as their immunity weakens. It primarily affects people over age 50, but cases are also rising in younger age groups.
Doctors recommend that anyone over 50 get vaccinated to prevent shingles. But Alberta has never covered the vaccine.
Wulff discovered it takes two Shingrix vaccinations to achieve 90 per cent efficacy against shingles.
Each of these needles costs $150, for a total of $300. If Wulff’s husband, Stan, also got the shots, it would cost the couple $600 — money they have other uses for.
“We live on a fixed income. We aren’t rich,” said Wulff, who believes many other seniors are in the same boat.
She thinks Alberta Health — which pays for the flu shot to prevent hospitalizations — should also pay for the Shingrix vaccine to benefit many Albertans and keep them out of doctors’ offices and hospitals.
Her neighbour, Hazel Flewwelling, said she got shingles on Aug. 25 and has only lately been able to sit down and wear clothing, as the rash and blisters were so painful.
“On a scale of one to 10, it was like a 12,” said Flewwelling, who described the affect of the virus on her nerves “like cats were (inside my skin) trying to claw their way out.”
Even urinating was horrifically painful, said Flewwelling. After taking a Tylenol 3 pain relief tablet, she recalled “it went from excruciating to almost bearable.”
Flewwelling recommends everyone over age 50 get the vaccine, and “absolutely” thinks it should be covered by the province.
But Tom McMillan, assistant communications director for Alberta Health, said spending on drugs is the fastest-growing cost driver in health — and Alberta is spending considerably more than most provinces.
He noted that most other provinces in Canada, including B.C., Saskatchewan and Quebec, don’t cover the shingles vaccination either.
While it is not provincially funded at this time, Alberta immunization program decisions are routinely reviewed, said McMillan.
Meanwhile, he noted the shingles vaccine is available for purchase at many clinics, and some private health plans will cover the vaccine cost when it’s prescribed.
Wulff believes more strain is being heaped on the health-care system as the population ages, so the government could be saving money in the long-run by providing free vaccinations to prevent a debilitating disease.
According to information on WebMD, shingles cases across the world have been rising steadily over the past six decades — even among younger adults.
From the late 1940s to the early 2000s, the prevalence of shingles in Americans younger than 50 more than quadrupled, a 2016 study from the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases shows.
Since stress can inhibit the immune system, medical experts believe stress could be a trigger for shingles.