A charity has spoken out in support of the UK government's immunisation plans for shingles following a Daily Telegraph report that cast aspersions on the validity of the scheme.

Eyebrows have been raised over the report in the newspaper which claimed that that use of Sanofi Pasteur MSD's shingles vaccine Zostavax could cost the NHS £250 million while saving fewer than 200 lives. The vaccination programme began in September and around 800,000 people in the UK will be eligible for the vaccine in the first year.

The Telegraph article centres around a claim that 0.9% of 70 to 79-year-olds, more than 30,000 people, develop shingles every year and taking the vaccine will reduce that figure to 0.5%. While the Department of Health has not confirmed the price of Zovastax, the newspaper understands that it can cost up to £55 per shot and notes that shingles is fatal for about 1 in 1,000 over-70s who develop the disease.

The Telegraph quotes Bill Beeby, a GP and chairman of the British Medical Association's prescribing committee, as saying that “if you are one of the ones in the 0.4% not going to get shingles because of the vaccine, you will be prevented from a very painful and debilitating illness. But you’ll never know if you were one of the 99% who would never get it anyway. When the NHS is being asked to find £20_billion savings, the question is particularly relevant".

However Nigel Scott of the Shingles Support Society told PharmaTimes that the charity very much backs the DoH scheme as a preventative measure "not because it is supposed to save lives". On an individual basis, he notes that preventing what is a decimating disease can only be beneficial in this age group, adding that on a financial level, "more people will be able to live independent lives", thus reducing the need for expensive care.

Supply problem

Mr Scott did not comment on the specific figures from the Telegraph, but noted the Oscar Wilde quote that "nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” He said the DoH "has done its maths" and decided that Zostavax vaccination is cost-effective and will greatly improve quality of life. However, there have been some supply problems, causing a temporary delay in getting the vaccine into the UK.

Intiially, the plan is to immunise people aged 70 or 79 in the first year with a phased programme for those aged in-between afterwards. Mr Scott told PharmaTimes that "you can't vaccinate 8 million people in one hit" so the DoH's plan is appropriate and the manufacturer is ramping up production. The temporary delay will not impact the overall programme to immunise 70 and 79 year olds and vaccine can be administered to the two eligible cohorts at any time up to August 31, 2014.