Hongkongers aged 50 or above should be able to receive free shingles vaccines, medical experts have said in a warning over risks of serious complications from the disease.
Professor Ivan Hung Fan-ngai, a top infectious diseases expert from the University of Hong Kong, on Sunday said local studies showed that about a quarter of patients hospitalised with shingles suffered complications.
“These complications often affect the nervous system, the cerebrovascular system, or even the cardiovascular system in serious cases. In most severe cases, it can cause encephalitis, or even stroke. It can also lead to eye diseases,” said Hung, who is also a member of the government’s advisory committee on vaccines for preventable diseases.
He said the government should cover the cost of shingles vaccines for people aged 50 or over, who were at high risk of developing the condition, to avoid a “heavy burden” on the healthcare system and finances of patients.
“A study released by Chinese University this year found that each shingles patient has to spend HK$2,400 [US$306] on outpatient consultations and HK$23,000 to HK$38,000 on hospital stays.
“The nerve pain that patients may experience after recovery from shingles can be very irritating. Patients may remain depressed for one to two years. They may need treatment or to take leave from work, which can be an economic burden.”
Shingles, or herpes zoster, is an infectious disease triggered by the varicella-zoster virus which also leads to chickenpox.
After a patient recovers from chickenpox, the virus remains in their nervous system. It may reactivate when the patient’s immune system is weakened by ageing or stress, causing shingles.
Patients with shingles may develop rashes, which can then become blisters. These can further spread, become filled with pus and leak blood, with the symptoms lasting from one to 14 days.
Infectious diseases expert Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, who co-chairs the Hong Kong Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, echoed the concerns.
“Under the ageing population, I believe that more than 50 per cent of residents will be 50 years old or above in 2040,” he said.
Patients with severe Covid-19 infections who were prescribed antiviral drugs or medicines that modulated their immune system would also have higher risks of developing shingles and serious symptoms, he said.
Lawmaker Edward Leung Hei, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said the shots should first be subsidised for people aged 65 or above and immunocompromised patients. The coverage should then be expanded to residents aged 50 or above in a second phase.
He said a course of the vaccine for shingles cost HK$4,000, which was expensive for low-income families.
His party surveyed 291 residents in Eastern district last month, with 23.7 per cent of the respondents reporting previous shingles infections and 93.1 per cent supporting the proposed subsidy.
“If a couple decides to get shingles vaccines for themselves as well as their parents, it can cost more than HK$20,000. Many may have the mentality of taking chances, thinking it may not be that easy to have shingles.”
He also suggested health authorities disclose the number of patients who had shingles and required hospitalisation each year from 2017 to 2022, and release the data every quarter in future.
Figures have not been made available for the local incidence rate of shingles as it is not categorised as a “notifiable infectious disease”, according to the government in 2022. Such diseases are ones which require registered medical practitioners to notify the Centre for Health Protection of all suspected or confirmed cases.
Yuen Siu-lam, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance of Patients’ Organisation, said he often saw shingles patients suffering “great pain” during community visits.
“The most common thing they face is the pain of having shingles, which feel like tingling, electric shocks or numbing. The nerve pain happens after their recovery has also seriously impacted their quality of life and mental health,” he said.
“One of my colleagues has blurry eyesight due to shingles and eventually went blind. Some patients can feel pain when the wind blows. I also see some of them almost scratch their skin off because of serious itchiness.”