March 8, 2017 — Health officials have issued a safety warning after the shingles vaccine Zostavax was linked to the death of a sick patient in Australia.
The person had a pre-existing compromised immune function and died after receiving Zostavax, according to a Safety Advisory from the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
The agency is warning doctors that the virus in Zostavax can cause deadly infections:
“Health professionals should carefully consider a patient’s immunological status prior to vaccination and not administer Zostavax in immunodeficient or immunosuppressed patients. If unsure, defer vaccination and seek specialist advice.”
Zostavax is a vaccine made by Merck that has been sold in the United States since 2006. Warnings about “infections and infestations” with the vaccine’s virus were not strengthened until December 2014.
Many people are surprised to learn that Zostavax can cause shingles or chickenpox, the same diseases it is supposed to prevent. These infections are usually mild, but they can be life-threatening or deadly.
The first Zostavax lawsuit was filed last month by a woman in Nevada who developed side effects. Merck is accused of downplaying the risk.
Zostavax contains about 14-times more live varicella-zoster viruses than Varivax, the chickenpox vaccine for children. These viruses are “attenuated,” or weakened so they cause a mild infection. Major infections can occur if the immune system can’t fight the virus.
This is why Zostavax is contraindicated in patients who have weak immune systems due to certain underlying illnesses (AIDS, leukemia, lymphoma, bone cancer, etc.) or medications that decrease activity of the immune system (steroids, arthritis or Crohn’s disease drugs, etc.).
For these patients, Merck is developing an alternative to Zostavax that does not contain a live virus. The investigational shingles vaccine “V212” is currently in Phase III clinical trials in adults over 18 with compromised immune systems. Unlike Zostavax, the new vaccine has an inactivated virus that can’t cause infections.
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