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Why we’re introducing Shingles Awareness Week

Shingles is most common for people over 50 – but the virus can reactivate at any time. 

Shingles is here: 1 in 3 adults will develop shingles in their lifetime 

Most adults will remember childhood anecdotes of their encounter with chickenpox, retold at family gatherings or doctors’ visits. Many individuals move past the ill-fated playdate that caused the infection well into adulthood, never thinking twice of the pediatric issue: the very same virus that caused chickenpox can cause shingles later in life, which  sometimes may lead to long-lasting complications.

To address this knowledge gap and help us get ahead of shingles, GSK is collaborating with the International Federation on Ageing (IFA) to raise awareness of the disease through the first-ever global Shingles Awareness Week, from 28th February to 6th March 2022.

One virus, two diseases

Shingles is caused by the reactivation of the varicella zoster virus (VZV), which also causes chickenpox. After you contract chickenpox, the VZV virus lies dormant in your nervous system and may reactivate in adulthood. Particularly affecting older adults [1] ,shingles is most common for people over 50 – but the virus can reactivate at any time.

Besides age, other factors that can increase the risk include certain underlying conditions, or medications that weaken the immune system. The theme for this year’s Shingles Awareness Week is ‘Shingles Is Here,’ illustrating the fact that over 90% of adults over 50 already carry the virus that causes shingles inside them.[2] 1 in 3 adults will develop shingles in their lifetime.[3]

The first signs of shingles can be a tingling or painful feeling in an area of skin, a headache, or feeling generally unwell. A few days later, a rash will appear. Usually a shingles rash starts on the chest or abdomen, but it can appear anywhere on the body, including the face. Shingles often presents as a blistering rash, typically on one side of the body along the nerve where the virus was originally dormant.

Besides the immediate pain and discomfort that usually accompanies a shingles rash, more serious conditions such as persistent pain (post-herpetic neuralgia) can last for months or even years. Post-herpetic neuralgia is the most common complication of shingles.[4]

Shingles can occur at any time in adulthood, so it is important to understand the risk factors and how shingles can significantly impact the quality of someone’s life. The more people are aware of the links between chickenpox and shingles, the sooner people can take action and discuss their concerns with their healthcare provider.

Sabine Luik

Chief Medical Officer and SVP Global Medical Regulatory & Quality, GSK

A short history of shingles

The mysterious reactivation of the varicella zoster virus was studied for the first time by a doctor in Cirencester, England over half a century ago. By tracking 1,270 patients from 1947 to 1962, R. Edgar Hope-Simpson demonstrated that shingles was not a new infection from an unfamiliar pathogen but rather a reawakening of the VZV from within.[5]

As people age, the cells in the immune system lose the ability to maintain a strong and effective response to VZV reactivation. Dr. Hope-Simpson noted this as well, noting that occurrences of shingles increased with age and in patients whose immune systems were suppressed due to conditions like leukemia or radiation therapy.

His theory was that during chickenpox, the virus travels from the surface of the infected skin along the length of nerves to the ganglia – hubs of nerve cell bodies outside of the central nervous system. Inside a nerve ganglion, the virus becomes latent. It then remains in the body for life. If something triggers the virus to awaken and multiply, copies of the virus travel back along nerves to the skin, leading to the painful shingles rash.[6]

Shingles Awareness Week will build awareness around the risk of developing shingles for older adults, as well as understanding any possible consequences of the disease. Any concerns should be shared with a healthcare provider.

We are delighted to join efforts with the International Federation on Ageing on this new initiative. By kickstarting the first-ever Shingles Awareness Week, our joint aim is to provide evidence-based information to empower individuals to understand their risk and talk to their healthcare professional (HCP) if they have questions and concerns. We must do our part to educate the global community on this preventable, painful condition.

Roger Connor

Roger Connor

President of Vaccines and Global Health, GSK

References

[1] Bricout H, et al. Herpes zoster-associated mortality in Europe: a systematic review. BMC Public Health. 2015;15:466.

[2] Bricout H, et al. Herpes zoster-associated mortality in Europe: a systematic review. BMC Public Health. 2015;15:466.

[3] Harpaz. Prevention of herpes Zoster. June 2008. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr5705a1.htm Last accessed: 20th December 2021 REF-2665.

[4] Dworkin RH, et al. Diagnosis and assessment of pain associated with herpes zoster and postherpetic neuralgia. J Pain 2008;9:S37–44.

[5] Hope-Simpson, R Edgar. “The Nature of Herpes Zoster: A Long-Term Study and a New Hypothesis.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, vol. 58, no. 1, 1965, pp. 9–20., https://doi.org/10.1177/003591576505800106 .

[6] Cunningham, Aimee. “With Its Burning Grip, Shingles Can Do Lasting Damage.” Science News, 29 Oct. 2019, https://www.sciencenews.org/article/shingles-virus-rash-chicken-pox-complications .

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