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Special Report: Understanding Shingles

Half of us will get shingles by the time we're 80 years old.
Half of us will get shingles by the time we're 80 years old. It's an itchy, often painful virus, brought on by a sickness many of us had as kids: Chickenpox.

An Evansville woman, who's very active in the community, has been battling shingles for five months. And is now a strong advocate for the vaccine.

"It's like being stabbed when you have full blown shingles."

The stabbing sensation has subsided since Donna Leader was diagnosed with shingles last Fall, but it's still there.

"I had breast cancer," said Leader. and I'm going to tell you, it was easier than what I've been through with this, and breast cancers no easy walk."

A rash first developed on her left hand, then came on the pain, a constant pain.

Donna said "It feels like a combination of hitting your shin and electrical shock. I couldn't bend my fingers until a month ago from early September, so it's been a real interesting experience."

The 70-year-old active woman never got the shingles vaccine simply because she didn't understand its importance. But her age and childhood bout with Chickenpox makes her a prime candidate.

"The shingles is really the Chickenpox virus," said Dr. William Smith. "And after you've recovered from Chickenpox, the virus continues to live in our body just at the nerve roots. And later as we get older, our immune system is not as effective as when we were young. And after stressful conditions or if you're ill, injury could come out."

The Chickenpox vaccine wasn't licensed in the U.S. until 1995. So, prior to that time, most children got the itchy bumps.

As society continues to age, Donna and other experts worry there will be a shingles epidemic.

"I think it looks better every time," said Leader.

Dr. Mike Roberts sees the most severe cases at the Deaconess Pain Management Center about 15 to 20 a year. These patients like Donna don't respond to typical treatments like anti-inflammatory medications. So, he administers an epidural steroid.

"The steroid medication basically acts as an anti-inflammatory agent," said Dr. Roberts, "and it baths those nerve roots directly where the virus is replicating."

Donna's had two epidurals and will find out in April if she'll need a third. Until she gets vaccinated, she could get shingles again, probably a less severe case. It is contagious in its first week when there's a rash.

"Children who've not been immunized for Chickenpox are at risk," said Dr. Roberts. "Pregnant women are at risk. Anybody who's not had Chicken pox that goes for adults as well."

There is no cure for shingles. But the best form of prevention, doctors say is to vaccinate kids against Chickenpox.

Doctors recommend anyone over 50 get the shingles vaccine. It is most commonly seen in the torso area but does show up in other places like the hands and face.

Doctors told Donna the nerve endings in her hand won't heal for possibly an entire year.
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