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Lawmakers to look at possible shingles vaccine program

February 6, 2017

COLUMBIA -- Lawmakers could take the first steps this week to form a state-sanctioned vaccine program for the Herpes Zoster virus, which is known by millions of Americans as shingles.

Shingles can strike anyone who suffered through chickenpox as a child and health agencies estimate that hundreds of thousands of Americans suffer shingles outbreaks each year.

State Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, is slated to present a joint resolution to the Health and Environmental Affairs subcommittee on Wednesday, calling for a group to be formed to study the virus and its effects on South Carolinians. The resolution also mentions the possibility of a “shingles vaccination program” to be administered by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Herbkersman said he decided to press the issue following a proposition from one of his constituents, one of thousands of retirees who make up a large portion of his district.

“One of the ladies from Sun City (Hilton Head) brought it to my attention that a lot of the older people (in the retirement community) are getting shingles and it’s debilitating for them or anybody really, it’s extremely painful,” the lawmaker said on Monday. “I’ve seen people who have it on their faces and, man, I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“They say you can even feel it when it’s gone,” he added.

Herbkersman said the woman who brought the issue to his attention had a simple argument: “What she was saying was look, ‘It’s such an expensive inoculation, is there any way we can have the state help pay for it?’”

“These people are all paying taxes, or they have been,” he said. “You can get inoculations for anything if you’re a kid but there’s nothing for the folks who actually pay for everything.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shingles affects roughly 1 million Americans each year, mainly those who are 60 or older. The CDC also claims on its website that “almost 1 out of 3 people in the United States” will develop the virus at some point in their lives and that the risk of shingles increases with age.

Shingles is caused by the varicella zoster virus, or VZV, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. Once an individual is infected by VZV, the virus never leaves their body but simply lies dormant. It’s not known why the virus reactivates later in adulthood, according to CDC.

In November 2015, new rules went into effect in South Carolina that made several major vaccines — including shingles — available at pharmacies without a doctor’s prescription.

With the new laws in place, Herbkersman is hopeful a committee formed to study the virus will find solutions for the folks in his district and across South Carolina.

“If it’s something that’s warranted, then maybe (DHEC) should look at vaccine program or something like that,” he said. “It’s not quite epidemic, but it sure feels like an epidemic when you get it.”