Clinician Article

Vaccines for preventing herpes zoster in older adults.

  • Gagliardi AM
  • Andriolo BN
  • Torloni MR
  • Soares BG
  • de Oliveira Gomes J
  • Andriolo RB, et al.
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019 Nov 7;2019(11). doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD008858.pub4. (Review)
PMID: 31696946
Read abstract Read evidence summary Read full text
  • Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)
    Relevance - 7/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)
    Relevance - 7/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • Geriatrics
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • Infectious Disease
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • Internal Medicine
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7
  • Public Health
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7


BACKGROUND: Herpes zoster, commonly known as shingles, is a neurocutaneous disease caused by the reactivation of the virus that causes varicella (chickenpox). After resolution of the varicella episode, the virus can remain latent in the sensitive dorsal ganglia of the spine. Years later, with declining immunity, the varicella zoster virus (VZV) can reactivate and cause herpes zoster, an extremely painful condition that can last many weeks or months and significantly compromise the quality of life of the affected person. The natural process of aging is associated with a reduction in cellular immunity, and this predisposes older people to herpes zoster. Vaccination with an attenuated form of the VZV activates specific T-cell production avoiding viral reactivation. The USA Food and Drug Administration has approved a herpes zoster vaccine with an attenuated active virus, live zoster vaccine (LZV), for clinical use amongst older adults, which has been tested in large populations. A new adjuvanted recombinant VZV subunit zoster vaccine, recombinant zoster vaccine (RZV), has also been approved. It consists of recombinant VZV glycoprotein E and a liposome-based AS01B adjuvant system. This is an update of a Cochrane Review last updated in 2016.

OBJECTIVES: To evaluate the effectiveness and safety of vaccination for preventing herpes zoster in older adults.

SEARCH METHODS: For this 2019 update, we searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL, Issue 1, January 2019), MEDLINE (1948 to January 2019), Embase (2010 to January 2019), CINAHL (1981 to January 2019), LILACS (1982 to January 2019), WHO ICTRP (on 31 January 2019) and ClinicalTrials.gov (on 31 January 2019).

SELECTION CRITERIA: We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) or quasi-RCTs comparing zoster vaccine (any dose and potency) versus any other type of intervention (e.g. varicella vaccine, antiviral medication), placebo, or no intervention (no vaccine). Outcomes were incidence of herpes zoster, adverse events (death, serious adverse events, systemic reactions, or local reaction occurring at any time after vaccination), and dropouts.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: We used standard methodological procedures expected by Cochrane.

MAIN RESULTS: We included 11 new studies involving 18,615 participants in this update. The review now includes a total of 24 studies involving 88,531 participants. Only three studies assessed the incidence of herpes zoster in groups that received vaccines versus placebo. Most studies were conducted in high-income countries in Europe and North America and included healthy Caucasians (understood to be white participants) aged 60 years or over with no immunosuppressive comorbidities. Two studies were conducted in Japan. Fifteen studies used LZV. Nine studies tested an RZV. The overall quality of the evidence was moderate. Most data for the primary outcome (incidence of herpes zoster) and secondary outcomes (adverse events and dropouts) came from studies that had a low risk of bias and included a large number of participants. The incidence of herpes zoster at up to three years follow-up was lower in participants who received the LZV (one dose subcutaneously) than in those who received placebo (risk ratio (RR) 0.49, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.43 to 0.56; risk difference (RD) 2%; number needed to treat for an additional beneficial outcome (NNTB) 50; moderate-quality evidence) in the largest study, which included 38,546 participants. There were no differences between the vaccinated and placebo groups for serious adverse events (RR 1.08, 95% CI 0.95 to 1.21) or deaths (RR 1.01, 95% CI 0.92 to 1.11; moderate-quality evidence). The vaccinated group had a higher incidence of one or more adverse events (RR 1.71, 95% CI 1.38 to 2.11; RD 23%; number needed to treat for an additional harmful outcome (NNTH) 4.3) and injection site adverse events (RR 3.73, 95% CI 1.93 to 7.21; RD 28%; NNTH 3.6) of mild to moderate intensity (moderate-quality evidence). These data came from four studies with 6980 participants aged 60 years or over. Two studies (29,311 participants for safety evaluation and 22,022 participants for efficacy evaluation) compared RZV (two doses intramuscularly, two months apart) versus placebo. Participants who received the new vaccine had a lower incidence of herpes zoster at 3.2 years follow-up (RR 0.08, 95% CI 0.03 to 0.23; RD 3%; NNTB 33; moderate-quality evidence). There were no differences between the vaccinated and placebo groups in incidence of serious adverse events (RR 0.97, 95% CI 0.91 to 1.03) or deaths (RR 0.94, 95% CI 0.84 to 1.04; moderate-quality evidence). The vaccinated group had a higher incidence of adverse events, any systemic symptom (RR 2.23, 95% CI 2.12 to 2.34; RD 33%; NNTH 3.0), and any local symptom (RR 6.89, 95% CI 6.37 to 7.45; RD 67%; NNTH 1.5). Although most participants reported that there symptoms were of mild to moderate intensity, the risk of dropouts (participants not returning for the second dose, two months after the first dose) was higher in the vaccine group than in the placebo group (RR 1.25, 95% CI 1.13 to 1.39; RD 1%; NNTH 100, moderate-quality evidence). Only one study reported funding from a non-commercial source (a university research foundation). All of the other included studies received funding from pharmaceutical companies. We did not conduct subgroup and sensitivity analyses AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: LZV and RZV are effective in preventing herpes zoster disease for up to three years (the main studies did not follow participants for more than three years). To date, there are no data to recommend revaccination after receiving the basic schedule for each type of vaccine. Both vaccines produce systemic and injection site adverse events of mild to moderate intensity.

Clinical Comments


This is a nice summary of the relative efficacy and adverse effects of the two available herpes zoster vaccines. The accompanying table is particularly practical and would be a nice tool for patient counseling.


This is a very useful update of risks and harms but some information on targeting would be very useful.

Infectious Disease

It's important to know the different kinds of vaccine and the scientific evidence to propose vaccination to our patients.

Internal Medicine

Although there appears to be a significant difference in effectiveness of the two vaccines, the Cochrane review does not really underscore this -- possibly because they have not been compared to each other directly.

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