How misconceptions about shingles are putting the well-being of older Australians at risk

Feb 28, 2024
Shingles is a painful condition characterised by a blistering rash that often appears on one side of the face or body. Source: Getty Images.

In the spotlight during Shingles Awareness Week (26 February to 3 March), a recent study commissioned by GSK highlights a concerning lack of awareness among Australians aged 50-79 regarding the shingles virus.

The research, encompassing 300 respondents, has unearthed significant misconceptions and knowledge gaps through both the GSK Australia survey and the global Misconceptions Survey.

GSK Australia’s survey exposed a stark reality: although 62 per cent of participants recognise the severe impact of shingles, merely 14 per cent consider themselves highly likely to personally face the risks of the disease during their lifetime.

Shingles is a painful condition characterised by a blistering rash that often appears on one side of the face or body. This rash can persist for 10 to 15 days, causing significant discomfort and distress. However, the real danger lies in the potential complications that can arise from shingles.

One in every five individuals affected by shingles may develop a debilitating condition known as post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN). PHN manifests as severe nerve pain that can persist for months or even years, negatively impacting one’s quality of life. In some unfortunate cases, this excruciating pain may become a permanent fixture in the lives of those afflicted.

The risk of developing shingles and its associated complications, including PHN, increases with age. Individuals aged 65 years and over face the highest risk, making them particularly vulnerable.

News presenter and campaign ambassador, Deborah Knight, has lent her voice to the cause, sharing her personal encounter with shingles after contracting the virus in early 2022, highlighting the impact the virus can have.

“It started with intense pain in my lower back, followed by a rash with sensitive blisters on my face. Shortly after these symptoms began, I saw my doctor who confirmed I had shingles,” she said.

“I live a really active lifestyle, so it was confronting to need my husband and son to help me stand up due to the pain.”

“Before I was diagnosed, I didn’t know much about shingles and the impact it could have. I’d thought it was a disease that affected people much older than me. After experiencing it myself, I encourage all Australians aged 50 and over to speak to your doctor about your risk of shingles.”

Leading expert, Professor Tony Cunningham, Director of the Centre for Virus Research (WIMR) and Professor for the Faculty of Medicine & Health at the University of Sydney, echoes this sentiment, advising Australians over 50 to evaluate their shingles risk and gain a deeper understanding of the disease.

“If you’ve had chickenpox the virus can remain in your body, kept dormant by your immune system. As you age, there is a decline in your immunity that can leave you susceptible to the reactivation of the virus, and if this occurs, reactivation of the virus leads to shingles,” Professor Cunningham said.

“Shingles can be a painful disease that can impact your quality of life so being aware of the symptoms and not underestimating your risk is important. This Shingles Awareness Week discuss shingles with your doctor. Discuss it with your family, particularly with older members of your family who are more at risk and may not be aware of shingles.”

This Shingles Awareness Week serves as a crucial opportunity for older Australians to prioritise their well-being by gaining a deeper understanding of shingles and its associated risks.

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