Gale Detta has been carrying a prescription for the shingles vaccine in her wallet for three years, unfilled due to the high price.
“A lot of people aren’t getting the vaccine because it costs so much,” said Detta, who is the president of the Senior Citizens Association of British Columbia. “It’s the women who get hit the hardest. If they raised their kids instead of having a job they get by on Old Age Security, so they can’t afford any extras.”
The vaccine for shingles, also known as herpes zoster, costs about $200 at travel clinics and pharmacies in B.C.
Detta will present a resolution at the seniors association’s annual meeting asking the provincial government to either fully fund or subsidize the shingles vaccine, following the lead of Ontario, which covers the shot for seniors.
She saw the misery caused by shingles up close when her mother had an outbreak two years ago.
“It lasted a year and she cried from the pain,” said Detta.
Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus, more commonly known as chicken pox. Anyone who has had chicken pox can get shingles, and about one in three people do during their lifetime.
The illness is most common in people over 50 and people with compromised immune systems. Shingles usually appears as a painful rash that lasts two to four weeks, but may include fever, headache, nausea and chills.
“Rare complications of shingles include pneumonia, loss of hearing or vision, scarring, inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) or death,” according to Immunize B.C.
Shingles on the face can lead to serious complications from loss of hearing and taste to facial paralysis and blindness.
The government weighs the cost-effectiveness and benefits of vaccines, along with the most current research, when deciding which vaccines will be covered by the provincial health insurance program, according to a health ministry spokesperson.
“We are aware that Ontario announced in September that they were covering the zoster vaccine for adults aged 65-70 — at an estimated cost of $68 million,” the ministry said in a statement. “With B.C.’s higher proportion of seniors, a similar program in B.C. would be a proportionally higher amount of our budget for immunizations.”
“Despite an over $18-billion budget, all decisions in the health care system have to be weighed against other important health care needs, for example, the provision of new and expensive hepatitis C drugs and other lifesaving treatments,” the ministry said.
The Medical Services Plan of B.C. covers about two dozen vaccines — including the varicella vaccine for chicken pox — but not the zoster vaccine.
The shingles vaccine is considered to be 60-per-cent effective at preventing outbreaks in seniors, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, which notes that shingles is a “potentially serious condition.”
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization, which advises the Public Health Agency of Canada, recommends the vaccine for persons aged over 60 years to prevent herpes zoster.
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