The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are mere weeks away from officially recommending those 60 and over take a vaccine that prevents shingles, CBCNews.ca has learned.

The vaccine, Zostavax, is made by Merck and Co., but is not yet approved for use in Canada.

"The vaccine is safe and effective and anybody 60 and above should seek out the vaccine," Curtis Allen, a CDC spokesman in Atlanta, told CBCNews.ca.

He said that CDC has been unofficially recommending the vaccine for people 60 and over since October 2006, when the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a federal panel of U.S. immunization experts, made the recommendation.

Aformal announcement, in the form of a scientific paper, is "about a month away," he said.

Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. A shingles rash usually appears on one side of the face or body and lasts between two and four weeks. It is painful and can be accompanied by fever, headache, chills and upset stomach.

In rare cases it can lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation or death — particularly in people who have other health problems and weakened immune systems, according to the CDC.

Curtis said the CDC feels the vaccine is a safe and effective way of reducing the risk of shingles, which most often flares up in people over 50. "It can happen a number of times and it can be debilitating, particularly for older people."

According to the CDC, people who should not be vaccinated against shingles include:

  • Anyone who has had a life-threatening allergic reaction to gelatin, the antibiotic neomycin or any other component of the shingles vaccine.
  • Anyone who has a weakened immune system due to HIV/AIDS or another immune-related illness.
  • Anyone whohas receivedtreatment with drugs that affect the immune system, such as steroids; cancer treatment such as radiation or chemotherapy; or has a history of cancer affecting the bone marrow or lymphatic system, such as leukemia.
  • Anyone who has active, untreated tuberculosis.
  • A woman who is pregnant or might be pregnant.

The formal recommendation on the vaccine will be published in the CDC's journal of record, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, said Curtis.

Health Canada has not approved vaccine

Health Canada has not approved Zostavax in Canada and said it would not be following the CDC's recommendations at this time.

"As no zoster vaccine is approved for marketing in Canada, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization has no specific recommendations," said Alain Desroches, a spokesman for the Public Health Agency of Canada.

That could change. "[Zostavax] is not yet available in Canada," said Amanda McWhirter, manager of public affairs at Merck Frosst Canada Ltd. in Montreal. "But we are looking forward to making this available to Canadians soon."

McWhirter would not comment further on Health Canada's review of the vaccine.

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A person cannot get shingles if they have never been exposed to the virus. But a person who has not had chickenpox who is exposed to a person with shingles, can develop chickenpox, according to Ontario's Ministry of Health. ((CBC))

Health Canada first approved chickenpox vaccines in 1998. Varivax, made by Merck Frosst Canada Ltd.,was approved for use in December 1998. It was later replaced by Varivax-II in 1999, and most recently by Varivax-III in June 2002.

Varilrix, produced by GlaxoSmithKline,was approved for use in 1999, but only became available from October 2002 onwards.

People who have never had chickenpox who receive the Varivax III vaccine lower their risk of developing the varicella-zoster virus that can lead to shingles later on, said McWhirter.

But according to the recent Canadian Immunization Guide, said Desroches,''the vaccines approved for prevention of varicella in Canada (Varivax III and Varilrix) are not indicated for the prevention of herpes zoster (shingles) in adults."

A person cannot get shingles if they have never been exposed to the virus. But a person who has not had chickenpox who is exposed to a person with shingles can develop chickenpox, according to Ontario's Ministry of Health.

"At this point in Canada, about 95 per cent of Canadians have had chickenpox, so there isa risk of contracting shingles later in life," said McWhirter.