Shingles vaccine shortage affecting older adults

Shingrix is 90 percent effective and on back order

Sloane Martin
June 30, 2018 - 6:59 pm
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Due to high demand, a new shingles vaccine that's 90 percent effective is on backorder until the end of the year.

It's concerning to medical and elected leaders because, according to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the number of Minnesotans turning 65 in this decade will be greater than the past four decades combined. Addressing the shortage of a highly effective shingles vaccine is important to meet their needs.

The virus that leads to the painful sores and, sometimes, ongoing nerve pain in seniors, exists in everyone who's had chicken pox. One in three Americans will get it. Officials say everyone over age 50, even healthy adults, should get the $300 vaccine that's covered by Medicare Part D.

"That rash can be very painful because it is the nerve itself that is inflamed from the virus," Dr. Tom von Sternberg, Senior Medical Director of Geriatrics, Home Care, Hospice and Case Management for HealthPartners, said. "In addition to the rash and discomfort, it also has a risk of affecting the eye, the ear, and some of the very critical, important nerves of the base-end of the neurological system."

Shringrix, manufactured by one company, GlaxoSmithKline, has been hailed for its effectiveness. Previous vaccine iterations were only around 50 percent effective. But word got out and older adults took advantage, like medical professionals advised.

The shortage, though, due to the unexpected demand of Shringrix, has disrupted operations at clinics and hospitals, forcing officials to ration the quantity they have to be able to administer the second dose required to reach maximum effectiveness. Some seniors who got the vaccine in March, for example, need to get their next dose around August to ensure maximum effectiveness, which prevents clinics from administering the vaccine to new patients.

"Our nurses and providers don't necessarily know each time every day whether they'll have availability of that vaccine, so it's a constant battle to understand that," Lee Mork, Director of Ambulatory Pharmacy Services for Allina Health, said. "Unfortunately, we and pharmacy are dealing with the shortages of medications and vaccines on a regular basis. It's our new norm now."

Sen. Klobuchar wants to see legislation to mandate drug companies have a plan to meet demand. She's heard back from company officials and says she plans to meet with them soon to ensure there's action being taken to get the vaccine back to hospitals and clinics as soon as possible. The shortage, she says, speaks to broader problems within the pharmaceutical industry about availability.

"The second bigger issue, is more competition on drugs in America," she said at United Hospital Saturday. "There's a reason why these other counties like Canada have drug prices that are half the cost of ours and that's because our system has been tilted in favor of the pharmaceutical companies. It's just unbelievable to me."

She says she's hopeful for the passage of legislation to get less expensive drugs from Canada and freeing up the ability to negotiate Medicare drug prices, as well as stopping pharmaceutical companies "from paying generic drug companies to keep their products off the market."

Health officials say it's still worthwhile to be patient.

"If you can't get it right now," Minnesota Department of Health Infectious Disease Director, Dr. Kris Ehresmann said, "I encourage you to not be discouraged, to recognize that there is a recognizable shortage, and to keep pursuing it because it's an excellent vaccine."