What Is the Shingles Vaccine?

Shingles is a disease that affects an average of 1 million Americans each year, most of whom are over 60 years old. It’s more common among older people because the immune system weakens with age.

However, the illness can occur whenever your immune system is weakened, whether it’s from cancer, HIV, certain medications, or other similar reasons. Some studies show that shingles can even manifest in healthy children and young adults. There are multiple shingles vaccines available to protect people with weakened immune systems from getting shingles.

What Causes Shingles?

Varicella-zoster, the virus responsible for chickenpox, is the culprit. Chickenpox is highly contagious, and anyone who’s had the disease is at risk of developing shingles.

Most people catch chickenpox in their youth, but many years later, the virus can reactivate and cause shingles.

Shingles Symptoms

Shingles usually manifests as a single, painful rash on either side of the face or body. The most common location of the inflammation is a “band” that develops on one side of the waistline.

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Other symptoms include:

  • Numbness, burning, or tingling of the skin
  • Fevers, chills, and headaches
  • Mild itching to severe pain
  • Fluid-filled blisters
  • Hypersensitive skin
  • Upset stomach

The severity of these symptoms varies from case to case. For some, shingles symptoms are mild. To others, they can be more severe, leading to permanent conditions or even death.

Other Shingles Complications

Aside from the milder symptoms listed above, shingles can cause other serious, long-term complications. These conditions include:

What Is Zostavax?

Zostavax is a shingles vaccine produced by Merck & Co., one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies. Doctors administer the vaccine as a single dose, usually on the upper arm.

Zostavax contains a weakened strain of the varicella-zoster virus, and like any other vaccine, it works by “boosting” your immune system against future attacks. Individuals who do develop shingles but are vaccinated may have less nerve pain than those who haven’t been vaccinated.

There are several issues with the Zostavax vaccine. For instance, Zostavax doesn’t protect everyone from shingles. Several experts have also raised concerns that its efficacy quickly wanes the first five years after vaccination.

Who Is Zostavax For?

Presently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only recommends this vaccine for people allergic to the ingredients in other herpes zoster vaccines. This decision is likely influenced by the fact that Zostavax is only 50% effective at preventing shingles.

In 2017, a new and more effective formulation called Shingrix, developed by GlaxoSmithKline, became the CDC’s preferred shingles vaccine.

Who Shouldn’t Take Zostavax?

People with minor acute illnesses, like the common cold, can get vaccinated. However, those with moderate or severe acute illnesses should recover first before getting Zostavax, including people with a temperature of 101.3°F or higher.

Anyone with the following conditions shouldn’t get the Zostavax vaccine:

  • Individuals who have a history of life-threatening or severe allergic reactions to gelatin, neomycin, monosodium L-glutamate, and other Zostavax ingredients
  • Women who are pregnant. Women also shouldn’t become pregnant until at least a month after a Zostavax shot
  • Anyone with a weakened immune system caused by:

o   Immunocompromising diseases like HIV/AIDS

o   Drug treatments that affect the immune system like steroids

o   Cancer treatments like chemotherapy or radiation therapy

o   Cancer that affects the lymphatic system or bone marrow, like lymphoma or leukemia

History of Zostavax

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved and licensed Merck’s Zostavax vaccine in May 2006. By 2011, the FDA recommended its use for people 50 to 59 years old.

Zostavax use plummeted once the FDA approved GlaxoSmithKline’s Shingrix vaccine in 2017, and the latter remains the preferred shingles vaccine by the CDC.

On June 30, 2020, Merck discontinued Zostavax in the US market. Medical professionals who still have existing vaccines can still administer them up to the expiration date, provided that the date is no later than November 2020.

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Accusations Against Merck

People across the country who have developed a Zostavax vaccine injury have filed lawsuits against Merck. In response, Merck requested these lawsuits be consolidated into Multi-District Litigation in 2018.

The current pending lawsuits allege that the pharmaceutical company is guilty of:

  • Failing to warn patients of Zostavax’s potential side effects
  • Producing a vaccine with adverse effects, including death
  • Lying about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness
  • Falsely stating that Zostavax doesn’t cause shingles
  • Continuing to sell the vaccine despite knowing its potentially harmful effects

Zostavax Side Effects

Like any vaccine, Zostavax can cause mild to moderate side effects to a small number of people. Milder and more common symptoms include:

  • Redness, swelling, itching, or soreness at the injection site (occurs in one in three people)
  • Headaches (occurs in one in 70 people)

A study conducted in 2013 found that patients who’ve had a shingles rash developed the same side effects after taking Zostavax as those with no prior history of shingles. In a few cases, patients vaccinated with Zostavax developed blister-like rashes.

Another study from 2012 discovered a small risk of the vaccine causing allergic reactions one to seven days after administration. Extreme versions of this symptom are called anaphylaxis, and it can cause:

  • Redness or warmth of the skin
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Facial swelling
  • Rapid pulse
  • Dizziness
  • Hives

Potential Injuries and Long-Term Conditions Related to Zostavax

shingles on the back as a potential side effects of zostavax vaccine

There is a chance that people who receive this Shingles vaccine may develop the same symptoms they are trying to avoid, along with other severe illnesses. These health complications include:


Surprisingly enough, the list of possible side effects from shingles vaccines includes shingles. Several lawsuits allege that Zostavax, a vaccine that contained weak live viruses, doesn’t have a safe formulation, causing people to receive an overly powerful dose.

With the right design, vaccines should expose patients with a dose potent enough to trigger their immune system but not too strong to cause adverse effects. Sadly, this isn’t the case with Zostavax, as dozens of patients received a robust varicella-zoster strain, and they developed severe symptoms as a result.

Several plaintiffs across different states, including Michigan, Tennessee, and Louisiana, filed lawsuits against Merck in 2017. They assert that the vaccine caused a shingles infection instead of preventing them from getting one. Two cases experienced post-herpetic neuralgia, and several others developed chronic pain, requiring hospital visits.

Retinal Necrosis

A man from South Carolina filed a suit against Merck, alleging that he developed a shingles vaccine injury involving one eye. The man experienced a loss of vision two months after getting vaccinated, and doctors later diagnosed him with retinal necrosis or retinal tissue decay.

The lawsuit states that the pharmaceutical company failed to warn the public of Zostavax’s adverse effects and knowingly released a defective vaccine.

Researchers from the University of Missouri School of Medicine found that shingles and chickenpox vaccines can lead to eye inflammation, supporting the statement that Zostavax may cause retinal necrosis.

Post-Herpetic Neuralgia

Post-herpetic neuralgia is the most common complication caused by shingles. It affects the skin and nerve fibers, creating a burning pain that can last long after the blisters and rashes disappear.

A woman from Wisconsin filed a shingles vaccine lawsuit, which alleges that Zostavax caused her to develop repeated shingles outbreaks instead of protecting her against the virus. She got her first vaccination in 2011, and since then, she experienced several post-herpetic neuralgia episodes.

During her trial, the plaintiff stated that she continues to live with the chronic pain caused by the vaccine.

Bell’s Palsy and Ramsay Hunt Syndrome (Facial Paralysis)

These conditions are both linked to the herpes zoster virus, and they can cause permanent facial paralysis if left unchecked.

The most significant difference between the two diseases is that Ramsay Hunt syndrome also causes painful blisters to develop on the ear canal back wall or the outer ear. Bell’s Palsy symptoms usually occur gradually and peak in two days.

The plaintiffs who experienced these effects allege that Merck is guilty of:

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  • misrepresentation of the facts
  • failure to warn consumers
  • defective vaccine design
  • unjust enrichment
  • negligence

Other potential injuries and long-term conditions caused by the shingles vaccine include:

  • Autoimmune disorders like Meniere’s disease, chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, and Guillain-Barre syndrome
  • Vision problems including eye infections, retinal damage, and blindness
  • Adverse neurological conditions like encephalitis (brain inflammation)
  • Vasculitis (blood vessel inflammation)
  • Myelitis (spinal cord inflammation)
  • Congestive heart disease
  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Hearing loss
  • Pneumonia
  • Stroke
  • Death


What’s the Difference Between the Shingrix and Zostavax Vaccines?

Zostavax is a live vaccine administered as a one-time subcutaneous (under the skin) injection. Shingrix, on the other hand, is a non-live vaccine administered into the muscle tissues in two doses (two to six months apart from each other).

The FDA approves the use of both vaccines to help prevent shingles, but the CDC recommends the use of GlaxoSmithKline’s Shingrix over Merck’s Zostavax. Studies prove that Shingrix is much more effective at preventing shingles, reducing the risk of shingles in patients over 50 years by 89.1% to 97%, a massive leap from Zostavax’s 18% to 69.8% success rate. Additionally, Shingrix can’t infect patients with the varicella-zoster virus because it isn’t live, while Zostavax can.

Can Zostavax Shingles Vaccine Lead to Death?

Yes. The National Vaccine Information Center (NCIV) reports over 1,100 serious adverse effects related to Zostavax, and at least 90 of them were deaths linked to the vaccine.

Do you have concerns about side effects from Zostavax shingles vaccine? Call our Vaccine Hotline at 1-800-810-3457. Our experienced lawyers at Sadaka Associates will help you with your case and recommend the best course of action.



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