Top health officials in Australia are warning that people with weak immune systems should not be given Zostavax after a person who got the vaccine died.
Zostavax is a live virus vaccine against shingles (zoster) made by Merck & Co. for adults.
Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, but Zostavax contains about 14-times more live virus than the chickenpox vaccine Varivax that is given to children.
The problem is that patients who are sick may not have a strong enough immune system to fight off the virus. This can lead to life-threatening or deadly infections with the live virus in the vaccine.
In March 2017, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) warned that Zostavax is not safe for patients with weak immune systems or underlying illnesses like leukemia, lymphoma, AIDS, and cancer.
Zostavax is also not recommended for people who are on medications that prevent activity of the immune system, such as anti-inflammatory corticosteroids, or anti-rejection drugs for organ transplant recipients.
According to the Zostavax Vaccine Safety Advisory:
“Health professionals should carefully consider a patient’s immunological status prior to vaccination and not administer Zostavax in immunodeficient or immunosuppressed patients. If unsure, defer vaccination and seek specialist advice.”
Merck & Co. is investigating a new shingles vaccine called V212. It contains an inactivated virus instead of a live virus. The company is in Phase III clinical trials to test the vaccine in immunocompromised adults.
Meanwhile, the company is facing a growing number of lawsuits for failing to warn about side effects of Zostavax. The vaccine has been on the market since 2006, but Merck did not add “shingles” or “chickenpox” to the list of potential side effects until December 2014.