Need for greater understanding of shingles

Results from a recent international survey reveal that most people are aware of herpes zoster -- more commonly known as shingles -- but do not truly understand the complexity of the condition or the potential impact it has on their overall health. Ninety-one percent of all survey respondents internationally were aware of shingles, but most of these respondents admitted to knowing little or nothing about the condition.

In addition, only 21 percent of respondents were able to identify key risk factors for developing shingles, such as having had chicken pox as a child. Even more surprising, more than 50 percent of respondents did not consider themselves at risk for developing shingles despite having had chicken pox as a child.

The International Shingles Awareness Survey, which queried people age 55 and older, across six countries (Australia, Canada, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom and the United States) was commissioned by the International Federation on Ageing (IFA) through an educational grant from Novartis PharmaAG to better understand how at-risk populations perceive their susceptibility to shingles and to gauge their existing knowledge about the effects and symptoms of shingles.

"This survey uncovered that people do not recognize if they are at risk for developing shingles," said Dr. Robert Johnson, University of Bristol, United Kingdom. "Approximately 90 percent of the population has had chicken pox at some point in their life and it is estimated that shingles will affect 20 percent of these people. These survey results are a call to action for medical and consumer communities to begin recognizing the risk factors and symptoms associated with shingles."

The survey revealed that not only do respondents not recognize the symptoms often associated with shingles (including unusual pain in one isolated area of the body accompanied by a blistering rash in the same area), but more than half think the symptoms of shingles will go away without treatment. More importantly, less than half of all respondents would take any immediate action at the onset of shingles.

"The results of this survey are particularly important for the older international population because research shows that shingles can pose health risks," said Dr. Jane Barratt, secretary general, International Federation on Ageing. "Older people are already more susceptible to health complications and this is one condition we can treat in many patients. Fortunately, this survey gives us insight into the types of programs that are needed to educate at-risk populations and their health care providers."

Despite the availability of prescription treatments, more than half of all respondents aware of shingles did not think there were drugs available to treat it. The survey also revealed that among the respondents aware of treatments for shingles, many believe that the use of these drugs is to treat the symptoms of shingles and not to shorten the duration of postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), which is the long-lasting pain that may occur, following the rash healing.

"Early diagnosis and treatment of shingles is very important for adults over 50," said Dr. Myron Levin, University of Colorado, United States. "Treating the condition may reduce the length of the outbreak as well as the duration of PHN. It's unfortunate that people aren't aware of the availability of oral anti-viral medications to treat shingles. It's important that healthcare providers and health advocacy groups work with their members to help increase awareness of shingles symptoms and possible treatments."

Shingles is caused by a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chicken pox. The virus remains in the body after chicken pox, from as early as childhood infection. Shingles is also called herpes zoster. The words "shingles" and "zoster" both translate from different languages into the word "belt," which describes the pattern of the rash of blisters that appears on the body-generally a band (dermatome) on one side of the body.

The International Shingles Awareness Survey was conducted by the Roper Public Affairs & Media Practice of NOP Worldwide, with headquarters in New York, NY. During 2004, Roper surveyed 1808 people via telephone -- at least 300 adults, age 55 and older from one of six participating countries, including: Australia, Canada, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom and United States. The margin of sampling error in the survey was +/- six percentage points for each country's population. The survey was commissioned by the International Federation on Ageing and was supported by Novartis PharmaAG.

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