The fact that older people in Hampton Roads are susceptible to shingles is nothing new.
Mysteriously though, for reasons that are yet unknown by physicians and medical researchers, younger populations across the nation have also been showing increased cases of the infection.
“We’re all aware of the concerns,” said Dr. Robert Palmer, director of Eastern Virginia Medical School’s Glennan Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology.
But, he added, no one is yet clear on why younger people seem to be experiencing shingles.
“There are lots of opinions, but scientifically we don’t know,” Palmer said.
The explanation, he said, could be as simple as better reporting (however, it is not a reportable disease in the State of Virginia).
Shingles descends from the same virus that causes chickenpox, the varicella virus. Palmer said the virus is “highly intelligent” and that after infecting a child with chickenpox it hides, only to reemerge years later as the herpes zoster virus and causing shingles.
Studies on the topic abound and most agree that the incidences of shingles have been rising since the late 1940s and early 1950s.
None of the studies can pinpoint a cause for the increase in younger people, although some tend to relate it to the introduction of a childhood vaccine against varicella/chickenpox in the mid-1990s.
That hasn’t been proven, Palmer said. He pointed out that shingles infections actually began climbing well before the childhood vaccine went into use.
But it’s not just younger populations being affected.
One-in-three people over the age of 50 are impacted by shingles, which, Palmer said, is the more serious of the two infections that the varicella virus can cause.
At its worst it can lead to brain damage: Postherpetic neuralgia affects nerve fibers and skin, causing burning pain that lasts long after the rash and blisters of shingles disappear.
“Older adults are living longer and often with chronic diseases, leading to a weakened immune system,” Palmer said.
A weakened immune system appears to perhaps allow the dormant virus to re-emerge.
“People can suffer horrendously from that, specifically when it attacks the cranial nerves,” he said. “Shingles itself can be devastating in older people.”
There is a vaccine against shingles though.
“It’s highly effective,” Palmer said. The vaccine is given in two doses, four to six months apart and is recommended for people 60 and older.