250,000 people a year in the UK suffer from shingles. It is a very unpleasant illness. Victims can die from it, although that is rare – about one in a thousand cases. But what is commonplace – approximately 100,000 cases a year – is to develop “postherpetic pain” when the virus damages a nerve. The pain is typically excruciating. 20 per cent of shingles patients remain in pain after three months. For those admitted to hospital the average stay is 14.6 days. More often the infection means the elderly can stay at home but are unable to look after themselves.
The good news is that there is a shingles vaccine (called Zostavax) that is available. There is a phased introduction. It is currently available free on the NHS for those who were 70, 71, 72, 78 or 79 years old on the 1st September, 2015. If you are eligible – or you know someone who is – it is something to be contact your GP about.
Apparently it costs the NHS around £55 a shot – which is rather high for a vaccine. But not only will it avoid a lot of misery, it is also good value for the taxpayer.
The bad news is that the take up in Hammersmith and Fulham is less than half the national average. Between September 2014 and May 2015 it was 27.7% in Hammersmith and Fulham for the routine vaccination at age 70 years. The uptake for England was 52.8%. For 78-year-olds it was 25.5% against 53.8% nationally, 21.0% against 52.5% nationally.
These figures are a disaster. The statistics represent a terrible human toll. There will be vastly more misery for the old people of our borough from this disease than for the country as a whole. This is avoidable.
Hammersmith and Fulham Council is doing nothing about it. The Public Health Department tells me:
“The shingles vaccination programme is commissioned by NHS England (NHSE), who is responsible for the commissioning of local provision of immunisation services and the implementation of programmes through general practice and other providers. As this is not a local authority responsibility no financial contribution has been allocated from the H&F public health budget specifically to increase the shingles vaccination uptake rate.”
Remember the Council spends £22.7 million a year on Public Health – most of this spending is currently wasted. Also consider that this is a Council that spends £88 million a year on adult social care – including providing carers for those residents unable to look after themselves due to shingles. So the Council’s indifference is not only callous but financially inept.
Other councils have been active on this – which may partly explain the higher vaccination rates.
The Council should use Public Health funds to write to all qualifying residents to urge them to take the jab. They should back this up with visits. It should be made as easy as possible – for instance offering the vaccination on site in sheltered housing accommodation and indeed in residents’ private homes. What about also paying for the vaccine itself for borough residents aged 73-77?
According to the last census the borough population is 183,000 with around 3% of us aged 70-79. So perhaps 5,000, and perhaps 2,000 aged 73-77. Of course not all of them will take the jab – it is a matter of personal choice after all. But supposing half of them did at a cost to the Council of £50 a time and thus a total bill of £50,000. I suspect that would be money rather better spent that most of current £22.7 million current Public Health budget – with teams of people writing reports for other people to file.
I have written to Cllr Vivienne Lukey, the Cabinet Member for Health and Adult Social Care, asking for the policy to change. She has a wide remit and I actually think it is understandable if she was not aware of the current policy on shingles vaccination. But I do hope that having been made aware of the policy she will not seek to defend what seems to me to be indefensible.