Pharmacy puts out shingles


Feb. 2--ALBANY -- The pain of shingles can be so sharp that some mistake it for a heart attack.

Shingles is the rash that appears when an old case of chicken pox virus flares up in adulthood. About a million people suffer from it each year. This winter, Rite Aid pharmacies have begun offering shingles vaccinations in the Capital Region.

"The shingles vaccine was a need that we were hearing wasn't being met by traditional means," said Rite Aid spokesman Eric Harkreader.

The vaccine is recommended for people over 60. In New York, patients need a doctor's prescription to get the shot. But many doctors do not carry the vaccine, which is expensive -- about $200 a dose -- and must be stored frozen and administered within 30 minutes of being removed from the freezer. All are conditions that make it difficult for small medical practices to keep a supply on hand.

Nicole Darbyshire, pharmacy supervisor at the Rite Aid at 2025 Western Ave., said about 50 people have been immunized at the store's clinics so far. Some have paid the $200 cost out of pocket.

"Once they've seen some of the bad things that shingles can cause ... they are willing to pay for the vaccine," Darbyshire said.

Medicare, the federal health plan that covers Americans over age 65, usually pays most of the cost; some private plans cover some of it, leaving a co-pay that can range from $4 to $80, Darbyshire said.

New York pharmacists were given authority to administer flu shots for the first time last year. They gave 700,000 seasonal flu vaccine doses and 325,000 H1N1 vaccinations, said Craig Burridge, executive director of the Pharmacists Society of New York State.

But New York pharmacists are still not allowed to administered the shingles vaccine. Rite Aid is offering it through scheduled clinics staffed by nurses.

Burridge said his group will be submitting legislation to expand the number of vaccines pharmacists can give to include the shingles vaccine.

Immunizations can be a source of new income for pharmacies, Burridge said, especially outlets that do more than 1,500 doses. In general, pharmacies that offer drop-in vaccine services administer 10 times as many vaccines as pharmacies that have only scheduled clinics, he said.

Mona Golub, vice president of marketing for Price Chopper Corp., said the supermarket's pharmacies will offer shingles vaccines as soon as pharmacists here are allowed to give the shot.

Shingles, aka herpes zoster, occurs when the chicken pox virus reactivates. A child with chicken pox makes antibodies that defeat the infection, but the latent virus hides in the spinal column, said Dr. Alan Sanders of Upstate Infectious Disease Associates and a professor at Albany Medical College.

The antibodies keep the infection from returning, but as a person ages the immune system wanes and the virus can reappear. From its home in the spinal column, herpes zoster travels along nearby sensory nerves. It can feel like a knife cutting through flesh as it inflames the nerve.

"It's like putting pins and needles into the nerves," Sanders said.

When it reaches the skin, it causes bright red welts known as shingles. The rash often appears on the torso, buttocks or face. The virus is not fatal and some cases can be mild, but others are extremely painful and can cause pain for years.

The vaccine is safe and cuts the risk of getting shingles by 50 percent, Sanders said.

"If you can decrease your risk of getting the pain associated with shingles by 50 percent, I'd probably take the vaccine too," he said.

The vaccine is a smaller dose of the same vaccine that children receive to prevent chicken pox. It is a live strain of chicken pox and causes the production of antibodies.

Adults get a boost of antibodies naturally throughout their lifetime as they are exposed to children with the virus. That exposure creates extra antibodies. But Sanders noted an interesting phenomenon: Now that so few children contract chicken pox, adults do not get a natural boost, so the risk of shingle outbreaks may be greater.

Cases of shingles should diminish because younger generations will never get chicken pox.

"This is really an interesting experiment in changing the environment," Sanders said.

Cathleen F. Crowley can be reached at 454-5348 or ccrowley@timesunion.com.

Rite Aid pharmacy shingles vaccination clinics will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. You must have a prescription from your doctor. Call to schedule an appointment at a clinic:

1901 2nd Ave., Watervliet Feb. 10 (518) 271-0311

614 Columbia Turnpike, East Greenbush Feb. 24 (518) 479-4230

Vaccination clinics

Rite Aid pharmacy shingles vaccination clinics will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. You must have a prescription from your doctor. Call to schedule an appointment at a clinic:

1901 2nd Ave., Watervliet Feb. 10 (518) 271-0311

614 Columbia Turnpike, East Greenbush Feb. 24 (518) 479-4230

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