Seniors disappointed P.E.I. won't pay for new, more effective shingles vaccine

The P.E.I. government won't pay for Island seniors to be vaccinated against shingles, despite repeated lobbying as well as news that a new shingles vaccine available later this month could be 90 per cent effective.

Province invested in free flu vaccine instead

Trials have shown Shingrix to be 90 per cent effective against shingles. (Fred Thornhill/Reuters)

The P.E.I. government says it won't pay for a new, more effective vaccine against shingles.

Shingrix, which has shown to be about 90 per cent effective, was approved by Health Canada last year and should be available in some pharmacies by mid-January. The shingles vaccine now on the market, Zostavax, reduces the risk of shingles by 51 per cent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Island seniors have been lobbying the government to make Shingrix available to those who need it.

"It's disappointing," said Don Sanderson, president of the P.E.I. Senior Citizens' Federation. 

The new vaccine will cost about $244, plus any pharmacy dispensing fees. The old vaccine isn't cheap either, Sanderson noted — he paid about $200 for Zostavax this year.

Focused on flu vaccine instead

So far, Ontario is the only province that picks up the tab for the old vaccine, and only for those aged 65 to 70. CARP, a seniors advocacy group formerly known as the Canadian Association for Retired Persons, is also pushing for Shingrix to be paid for by provincial health plans.

Don Sanderson says some seniors who need the vaccine may not be able to afford it. (Al MacCormick/CBC)

In a statement emailed to CBC, P.E.I.'s Department of Health and Wellness said while the Chief Public Health Office recommends all Islanders age 60 and older get the shingles vaccine, it won't cover the cost.

"This year P.E.I. has invested in universal influenza immunization and has also focused on an adult immunization initiative to enhance overall immunization rates in our adult population," the statement said.

The Chief Public Health Office reviews what vaccines it should invest in through a provincial immunization committee, it also noted.

'You're kind of debating'

The P.E.I. seniors group passed resolutions in both 2015 and 2017 calling on the province to cover the cost of the vaccine, noting the $200 cost "is prohibitive for many seniors."

Advocates for seniors are calling for a new shingles vaccine available in Canada in early 2018 to be provided for free. (Eloy Alonso/Reuters)

"Seniors are on a fixed income and they just can't afford it — it's a lump sum that has to come out of their funds, and it's quite a substantial amount," Sanderson said. 

"You're kind of debating if you need it or you don't," he said, so some seniors simply won't get the vaccine when they should. 

An estimated 130,000 Canadians get shingles every year. The older you are, the more likely you are to get it and to suffer severe health effects.

If the province provided all Islanders between 65 and 69 a shingles vaccine, the cost would be $1.2 million, plus $500,000 every year after that, said Health Minister Robert Henderson back in 2016.

'Save a lot of agony'

The federation would be satisfied if the shingles vaccine were available on a sliding scale for those who don't have insurance coverage, the group said. The real concern is not that it be free for everyone, but that those who want the vaccine can have access. 

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

"It would save a lot of agony," said Margaret Ching, 74, who's on the board of the federation. 

She had the painful disease in 2015 but caught it quickly before it escalated, she said. Ching felt burning and saw blisters, and within a day, went to an emergency room. 

She would like to see the government pay for Islanders who aren't insured to get the new vaccine. 

"If someone gets it bad they're in the hospital for a long time ... some of them have that nerve-ending pain for a long time," she said. "I was thankful I caught it in time." 

Ads for the new shingles vaccine recently started appearing in cities in Ontario, B.C. and Quebec, including in this Toronto subway station. (CBC)

About the Author

Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara is a P.E.I. native who graduated from the University of King's College in Halifax. N.S., with a Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) degree. She's worked with CBC Radio and Television since 1988, moving to the CBC P.E.I. web team in 2015, focusing on weekend features. email