‘It’s happening everywhere.’ Shingles vaccine shortage has seniors, pharmacies scrambling

Shingles vaccine is highly effective, but you may have to wait to get it

Health officials recommend adults 50 and older get a new, more effective vaccine for shingles called Shingrix. But it's been in such high demand nationwide that it's caused a shortage for many pharmacies.
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Health officials recommend adults 50 and older get a new, more effective vaccine for shingles called Shingrix. But it's been in such high demand nationwide that it's caused a shortage for many pharmacies.

Since the new shingles vaccine Shingrix came on the market in March, high demand and unmatched supply forced a shortage around the country, meaning many seniors in Centre County are facing obstacles to getting vaccinated.

Barbara Kennedy, of State College, visited five different pharmacies and a doctors’ office before finally getting her Shingrix vaccine.

“After calling many local pharmacies and learning about the very long waiting lists, I worried that I and many others in central Pennsylvania might not be able to get the vaccine for a very long time,” she said.

Kennedy tried four different CVS pharmacies in State College and Boalsburg Apothecary. At one of the CVS locations, Kennedy said she was told that the waiting list for Shingrix was too long to even add her. Boalsburg Apothecary hasn’t received a shipment of the vaccine since July and its waiting list is close to 50 people long, said owner Bill Faust.

“It’s happening everywhere in the country,” he said of the vaccine shortage. “GSK (GlaxoSmithKline, the manufacturer) could not keep up with the demand.”

Who should get vaccinated for shingles?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people over 50 get vaccinated with Shingrix to prevent herpes zoster, the shingles virus, and related complications like chronic pain called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN).

Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. For adults who have already had chickenpox, the VZV is dormant in their body, leaving them a 1 in 3 chance of contracting a case of shingles. Shingles develops, in most cases, as a rash of fluid-filled blisters that are painful to the touch; fever, chills, upset stomach or headache; and burning, tingling or numbness of the skin.

Shingrix, according to the CDC, is 96-97 percent effective in preventing shingles in adults aged 50 to 69 and 91 percent effective in adults aged 70 and older. By contrast, Zostavax, the shingles vaccine in use since 2006 that is manufactured by Merck, reduces a person’s chance of getting shingles by 51 percent and their chance of contracting PHN by 67 percent.

Though local CVS pharmacists and staff declined to comment for this story, a representative from the company’s corporate headquarters confirmed the shortage.

“Due to high demand for this new and highly-effective vaccine, it has become challenging to keep an ample supply across all of our more than 9,800 stores and more than 1,100 clinics due to supply restrictions from the manufacturer,” wrote Amy Lanctot, the senior public relations manager for CVS, in an email.

Sean Clements, the external communications director for GlaxoSmithKline, the United Kingdom-based manufacturer of Shingrix, said “there is no manufacturing issue” regarding the vaccine shortage.

“Shingrix has been met with an unprecedented level of demand from patients and health care professionals,” he wrote in an email. “GSK has responded to this demand by significantly increasing and accelerating shipments of Shingrix. We understand that this is a challenging situation to manage for patients seeking immunization. We have been shipping large volumes of Shingrix regularly every two to three weeks and plan to go to shipping twice a month, starting in December. A large shipment was distributed last week.”

How long is the wait for a new Shingrix shipment?

Even major local health centers can’t stock Shingrix because of the shortage.

Mount Nittany Health is on a waiting list for the Shingrix vaccine from GSK, said Anissa Ilie, the communications coordinator. Though the health center does not know when they will receive a shipment next, Ilie said Mount Nittany will contact patients directly once the vaccine is made available by the pharmaceutical company.

Because Shingrix is a two-step vaccine, the CDC recommends waiting two to six months for the second dose. If a person waits longer than six months to get their second dose, they should not restart the sequence.

At Boalsburg Apothecary, the wait for a new shipment of Shingrix could be months long.

“I was told that we should have some products in our hand by mid-January,” Faust said.

Kennedy thinks the fact that she was able to get a vaccine was a stroke of good fortune.

“I got lucky and found one pharmacy that had a few doses of the vaccine,” she said. “But I worry about all those people who are still on waiting list to receive this vaccine.”