Participants Sought for Study Aimed at Preventing Shingles

August 14, 2000

Most adults at one time or another have suffered through the itchy scabs that are synonymous with chickenpox. Bad memories and possibly a few minor scars are all that last for most people. But for 850,000 unlucky individuals each year, the virus that caused chickenpox so many years ago comes roaring back to cause shingles, a more serious disease that can mean anything from a few days of minor inconvenience to a lifetime of severe pain.

Now local residents can do their part to fight the virus. Physicians at Strong Memorial Hospital are looking for 1,000 volunteers for a research study investigating a vaccine against shingles. The study is sponsored by the Veterans Administration and by Merck, which makes the vaccine; officials hope to enroll a total of 37,000 patients at 22 sites around the country.

Shingles produces a painful, blistering rash and can occur at any age but becomes more common as people get older. Most patients are over age 60; physicians estimate that as many as half of people age 85 will come down with it. Currently there is no way to prevent the disease.

"Shingles is a serious disease, particularly for mid-life and older adults," says Robert Betts, M.D., professor of medicine and an expert on shingles. "I've seen many patients whose lives were made miserable by it. Everyday activities like showering, drying off, or putting on clothes can be excruciatingly painful to a shingles patient."

Betts is leading the local portion of the study, which is investigating whether the vaccine actually prevents the disease. People 60 or older who have never had shingles and are in good health are eligible to take part. Participants will visit Strong Memorial Hospital once to answer questions about their health, and then they'll receive either the vaccine or a placebo. Patients will be tracked by telephone to see whether or not they eventually contract the disease. Already 800 patients locally have taken part, and the team is looking for 1,000 more. "We've had tremendous support from dozens of physicians and many of their patients in the Rochester community," says Betts.

Anyone interested in participating should call 275-1238.

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