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Shingles vaccine shortage continues to frustrate

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Amanda Brummel oversees pharmacies at Fairview's clinics
Amanda Brummel oversees pharmacies at Fairview's clinics. She says Fairview has thus far been able to provide Shingrix to anyone asking for it. But she's not at all confident that will continue to be the case.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

A relatively new shingles vaccine that can dramatically reduce the likelihood of developing the painful condition has become so popular that clinics and pharmacies are having trouble keeping it in stock.  

Shingles is a blistery flare-up of the chicken pox virus, which lingers in nerve tissue after chicken pox goes away. 

GlaxoSmithKline's new Shingrix is more than 90 percent effective in heading off shingles in people over 50 with the full complement of two doses within six months of each other.

That's a big improvement over what had been available, and Shingrix has been so much in demand its manufacturer hasn't been able to produce adequate supplies. 

Within the big HealthPartners system some clinics are turning away patients looking for Shingrix.

"As soon as we get vaccine we will give vaccine. We've seen unprecedented demand and the manufacturer has been unable to keep up," said Dr. Mark Sannes, who oversees medical specialities at HealthPartners.

Dr. Mark Sannes oversees medical specialties at HealthPartners
Dr. Mark Sannes oversees medical specialties at HealthPartners where some clinics are turning away patients looking for Shingrix.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

GlaxoSmithKline rolled out Shingrix a year ago and says it has increased production in response to the shortage. The company anticipates producing doses in numbers approaching 20 million within three years. Already, it said, 7 million doses have been administered, the vast majority of them in the U.S. 

So many people want the vaccine because they know how terrible shingles can be said Kris Ehresmann, head of the Minnesota Department of Health's Infectious Disease Division.

"It can be painful to the point that can interfere with their activities of daily living and in some cases it follows the nerve paths and sometimes people can get it on their face; it can be close to their eyes. It can be very dangerous," she said. Even Ehresmann is having trouble tracking down the shot. Her advice is to be persistent. 

"I personally was just at my clinic and asked and unfortunately they still don't have it but I'm going to continue to keep pursuing getting that vaccine," she said. "While we're delighted that so many people want to do it, it is frustrating to have a tool that is so good and have it not be as available as we would like."

As part of this story, I tried to find the vaccine. My clinic had none; so I called a local pharmacy and got on their waiting list — 70th. They had no idea when my turn might come up.  I finally found the vaccine at a Fairview Health Services  pharmacy.

The shot burned going in and my arm was still sore a day later.  And that's only half the immunization. To be fully effective, two doses are required within six months. 

The question now is whether people who got the first shot will find a second dose in time. 

Amanda Brummel, who oversees pharmacies at Fairview's clinics, said that health system has thus far been able to provide Shingrix to anyone asking for it. But she's not at all confident that will continue to be the case. 

"We really don't know, and I can say that already we've had calls this week because some of the stock that we were anticipating getting this week looks like it's being delayed," she said.  So we're taking this really on a day-by-day basis and trying to manage the stock that you have."

GlaxoSmithKline said people getting the shot now should feel confident that they'll be able to find the vaccine for their second shot in several months.

Because Shingrix works so well, health officials are encouraging people 50 and over who've not had it to keep looking for it.

"If you couldn't get the shingles vaccine today, don't worry, keep reminding your health care provider that you want to get on the list and that when there is supply that you'd like to get it," said Dr. Kathleen Dooling of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "With time we have no doubt that people who want this vaccine are going to be able to get it."