Shingles vaccine catch-up program extended

Matt Woodley

19/10/2021 4:56:37 PM

The extension means people aged 70–79 will now have free access to vaccination against the herpes zoster virus until at least October 2023.

Book page, definition of shingles
Antiviral prescription rates have declined in the over 70s since the vaccination program’s launch.

While vaccination against shingles with Zostavax is free under the National Immunisation Program (NIP) for people aged 70, the five-year catch-up program for those aged 71–79 was due to expire at the end of this month.
However, the Department of Health (DoH) has announced those who missed or delayed getting vaccinated now have until 31 October 2023 to get their free vaccination.
The move is designed to cater for patients who have delayed treatments due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Zostavax vaccine first became available in 2006 and has been fully funded under the NIP for those aged 70–79 since November 2016.
Chair and Director of the Immunisation Coalition Scientific Advisory Committee, Professor Robert Booy, told newsGP the original catch-up program was designed to avoid placing too much strain on the healthcare system when the Australian National Shingles Vaccination Program commenced.
‘When Zostavax was introduced … it [was offered] to people at most risk for the best possible benefit, and that’s why people under 70 weren’t covered,’ he said.
‘It was going to be too much of a strain on the system to have everyone coming in at the same time.’
Without vaccination, the DoH estimates around one in three people would get shingles (herpes zoster) in their lifetime, with the likelihood of infection and severe and long-lasting pain increasing with age.
In Australia between 2006–2013, there were an estimated 5.6 annual cases per 1000 people across all age groups. This increased to an estimated 13.7, 15.3, and 19.9 cases per 1000 in the 60–69, 70–79, and 80 years and older age groups respectively.
Likewise, in the 10 years before Zostavax was added to the NIP, herpes zoster-coded antiviral prescription rates increased by 2.2% per year in the 70–79 years age group.
However, according to research co-authored by Professor Booy, herpes zoster antiviral prescription rates declined ‘significantly’ in the eligible population aged 70–79 – by an average of 13.6% per year – in the two years following the vaccination program’s launch.
In contrast, no significant trends were observed for the other age groups.
‘These results indicate that the National Shingles Vaccination Program has been highly successful in vaccinating a considerable proportion of Australian adults aged 70–79 years against herpes zoster and suggest that vaccine uptake was associated with decreased incidence of herpes zoster,’ the research states.
The extension of the program has coincided with the arrival of the Shingrix vaccine in Australia, which according to the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) is preferred for people aged 50 and over due to its higher efficacy.
However, Shingrix is not yet funded under the NIP and is only available via private prescription.
Despite this, Professor Booy said negotiations on publicly funded medications like vaccines are ‘always’ underway and he believes ‘what may be the case today, may not be the case next week’.
‘There was always the expectation that a more effective vaccine would come along,’ he said.
‘Given there are likely further negotiations behind closed doors that you and I are not privy to, the price may come to a point where government decides to fund it as [part of the] catch-up [program].
‘That’s my suggestion – that government will negotiate behind closed doors to get it more widely available.’
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