Sunday, February 15, 2009

Shingles - a nasty joke

...which our bodies and the varicella-zoster (chicken pox) virus play on us decades later! I have vivid memories of a five-year-old me, trying to run away from my mother, who was chasing me armed with a bottle of very cold calamine lotion to daub on my spots.

So for the next forty, fifty, sixty years you go around feeling invulnerable whenever you hear of chicken pox, and indeed you won't catch it again. But the sneaky little virus hasn't gone away. It's found a cosy hiding place, usually in a bundle of nerve fibres near your spine.

Then one fine day, your immune system's a little low, or perhaps your body no longer realises it needs to fight this one, since you haven't met anyone with chicken pox for years. Grabbing the opportunity, the sleeping beauty wakes up. It starts to tingle and stick pins in to you, and bursts out in nasty painful spots. Spots which generally follow a band of skin along the nerve on one side of the body. They can itch and make it difficult to find a comfortable sleeping position. Sometimes the pain can persist for months after the initial attack.

There is a vaccination against chicken pox, not used in the UK, but offered to children in the US. This vaccine can also offer some protection against shingles when given to older people. I'd like to hear more about it.

My suspicion is that it's not a sexy topic, for several reasons:

*The disease isn't life-threatening, as a rule.
*It doesn't occur as an epidemic - you can't 'catch' it from anyone else.
*It affects mainly older people - so it's not as important economically. Not 'cost-effective' to vaccinate.

But possibly more so than the repeated attempts at introducing an effective computer system into the health service?

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