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Don't fret over shortage of new shingles vaccine

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Dr. John Hallberg
Dr. John Hallberg is co-host of MPR News' Hallberg's Picture of Health podcast.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

A new and more effective shingles vaccine keeps running out of stock due to high demand. But there is no need to panic about the shortage if you plan to get the shot, says Dr. John Hallberg, an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota.

Shingles is a viral infection that occurs due to the same virus that causes chickenpox. Anyone over 40 years old who had chickenpox as children may develop shingles. 

"It just lies dormant for decades," said Dr. Hallberg. "As we get older — we're sick, we're tired, we're stressed — there's all kinds of reasons why it can reemerge."

The infection, however, isn't actually fatal and does not need vaccines to be treated. It may cause crying pain for a couple of weeks, but will eventually go away without vaccines. Antiviral medications can also help shorten the period of the symptom and relieve the pain if treated within 24 to 48 hours. 

"It decreases the likelihood that you're going to get this post-therapeutic neuralgia afterward," Dr. Hallberg said.

Ever since the release of the new vaccine in January, its popularity has made it harder and harder for patients to get because this treatment is much more effective, around 90 to 97 percent, compared to 30 to 50 percent of the previous vaccines. 

It prevents shingles from emerging by getting two shots, which is making the shortage last longer than expected, Dr. Hallberg said. 

"You're supposed to get the second one two to six months later and people are going back to get the next one. And it's not there. So we're told that this shortage may go or will likely go through the rest of 2018," he said. 

While tens of millions of people are waiting to get the preventive vaccine, it is soon coming back in supply to meet the demand. 

"The only reason we get a second one is to ensure that you have sort of lifelong immunity, you're going to get it," said Dr. Hallberg. "Don't panic. Be patient. We're going to get it in supply and everyone will be covered very soon."