Having to pay for your own shingles vaccine isn't ageism, tribunal rules

When Thomas Hasek decided to get immunized against shingles a few years back, he had to pay $200 for the shot. That struck him as unfair — after all, the childhood chickenpox vaccine addresses the same virus, and it's publicly funded.

Thomas Hasek's complaint regarding the 50% effective Zostavax vaccine dismissed by B.C. human rights body

Thomas Hasek says B.C.'s failure to fund a shingles vaccine is 'very clearly age discrimination.' (Thomas Hasek)

When Thomas Hasek decided to get immunized against shingles a few years back, he had to pay $200 for the shot. That struck him as unfair — after all, the childhood chickenpox vaccine addresses the same virus, and it's publicly funded.

And so, Hasek filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, alleging that the province's failure to include the Zostavax vaccine in the public program amounted to age discrimination.

"The baseline fact that this treats older people differently from kids or younger people, you can't deny," Hasek told CBC this week.

But the tribunal didn't see things that way.

On Friday, tribunal member Barbara Korenkiewicz dismissed Hasek's complaint, saying "age was not a factor" when the ministry of health chose to prioritize coverage of other vaccines over Zostavax.

'People do not die from shingles'

A committee of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control considers new additions to the province's publicly funded immunization program once each year, according to the decision. Recent approvals have included HPV immunization for boys and high-risk men, and a vaccine that prevents severe infections in people living with HIV/AIDS.

Korenkiewicz wrote that these "all had the potential to save lives by protecting against communicable disease. By contrast, shingles is not a communicable disease and people do not die from shingles."

She pointed out that Zostavax is only about 50 per cent effective in preventing shingles — and it becomes less effective with time. The chickenpox vaccine, on the other hand, is about 95 per cent effective after two doses.

'They haven't proved a thing'

Hasek, now 76, said he wasn't impressed with the tribunal's decision.

"In my view, they haven't proved a thing. They've proved from a very legalistic point of view that it was not ageism or age discrimination. But if you look at the facts dispassionately or without resorting to a law library, it's very clearly age discrimination," he said.

Vaccination can help prevent shingles, which is caused by varicella zoster — the same virus that causes chickenpox. (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention)

Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus, which lingers in the nerve cells after a chickenpox infection. The virus can be reactivated years or decades later, causing a painful, blistering rash.

For about one in five people, shingles can lead to severe pain that lasts for up to six months after the rash has cleared.

Anyone who's had chickenpox can develop shingles, but it's most common in people over the age of 50 or those with compromised immune systems.

Hasek said that despite his disappointment with the tribunal's ruling, he has no plans to file for a judicial review of the tribunal's decision.

But the experience of arguing in front of the tribunal has inspired him to continue his activism.

"What I think might be more useful than my seeking a judicial review ... is to try and organize some sort of political movement for seniors," he said.

In the time since he received the Zostavax shot, a new shingles vaccine called Shingrix has been approved for use in Canada, and it's said to be about 90 per cent effective in preventing the disease.

​Korenkiewicz makes it clear that her decision does not signal the tribunal's position on any future complaint regarding Shingrix coverage.

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Reach me at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.