Why are people getting shingles in their 40's?
If you look at social media, you may have noticed a lot of posts from middle aged people, complaining that they have gone down with 'an old man's' disease. In 2012, shingles was one of the most searched health terms on the internet. So why are healthy forty and fifty year old people getting the shingles that normally leaves them alone, well at least until they reach their seventies and eighties?
The nasty virus that's responsible is the Varicella-zoster virus that also causes childhood chicken pox.
However the virus may not be the sole culprit.
Chicken pox season
The childhood chicken pox 'season' generally used to run from late winter to early summer, peaking at the beginning of April in the northern hemisphere. Chicken pox is not a very serious disease and statistics show that only 2-6% of kids even need to see a doctor. Nevertheless, a Varicella- zoster vaccine was included in the general child vaccination programs in the USA and some EU countries as early as 1995. Then, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 revealed that the vaccine only works for a short space of time. There is a gradual loss of immunity new cases of chicken pox were happening at 6-9 years year of age in vaccinated children, and in non-vaccinated children at 9-12 years. Complications of chicken pox are known to increase with age and this combined with the average age of puberty dropping, has the potential for serious skin problems and scarring in the children, because they are now older when they catch chicken pox .
Childhood chicken pox vaccinations are causing more adult shingles
If the children are getting the virus at an older age, why are adults getting shingles at a younger age? The answer seems to lie in the natural boosting of our immunity to the virus. Two major studies have shown that there is a clear association between exposure to children with chickenpox and getting shingles as an adult. The first study carried out in Spain concluded that contacts with young children who had chickenpox significantly reduced the risk of suffering Shingles in adulthood. The second study carried out in Belgium showed that parents in households who had a small child with chickenpox had an improved immune response to the Varicella-zoster virus even a year after the chickenpox outbreak. Other studies have shown that contact with a child with Chickenpox every ten years is enough to maintain adult immunity and protect against Shingles. As more and more children are vaccinated, it will soon be necessary to vaccinate adults and the ageing population regularly to prevent regular outbreaks of shingles.
Should we just let nature takes its course?
It seems that getting chicken pox in the early toddler years has other benefits too. A study carried out in the USA in 2010 showed that if children catch chickenpox naturally (known as wild type varicella zoster) before the age of 10, they have better protection against getting eczema, asthma and other allergic sensitization problems.
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