New global survey finds widespread misunderstandings about shingles despite its lifetime prevalence

GSK plc (LSE/NYSE: GSK) today announced data from a new global survey,1 which was commissioned and funded by GSK, suggesting some significant gaps in the understanding of shingles amongst adults aged 50 and over, a group of adults at risk of the disease.4 As one of the most searched diseases on Google,7,8,9 public interest in shingles is high, yet these results show that understanding is comparatively low.

The online research surveyed 3,500 adults aged 50 and over from 12 countries, assessing respondents’ understanding of shingles, what may trigger it, and its impact on people’s lives.1

Shingles is developed by the reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (VZV) and partly caused by the age-related waning of the strength of the immune system.2,4,10,11 With an ageing global population,12 the incidence of shingles is expected to increase as the average age increases globally.13 However, new data suggest that many adults from the age of 50 fundamentally misunderstand important aspects of the disease, including how it may be triggered.1

The top three misconceptions surrounding shingles in the global survey were:1

  •  55% of respondents believe that “you can catch shingles from someone with shingles”1

Shingles cannot be transmitted from person to person like other airborne diseases such as COVID-19. Shingles is caused by a reactivation of the varicella-zoster virus (VZV) that is already residing in the person, the same virus that causes chickenpox,2 which remains dormant within the nervous system and can reactivate with advancing age.4,14

  • Nearly 50% of respondents believe that “you can catch shingles from someone with chickenpox”1

Shingles is caused by the VZV;2 if a person has never had chickenpox before, the virus might cause chickenpox.15 The virus will then remain dormant within the nervous system and may develop as shingles when advancing age reduces the strength of the immune system.4,14

  • 39% of respondents believe that “you can’t develop shingles if you’ve already had shingles”1

By age 50, VZV is present in most adults.2 The majority of people who develop shingles only have it once; however, it is possible to develop shingles more than once in a lifetime.15

Jane Barratt, Secretary General, International Federation on Ageing said: “This new insight into how limited shingles awareness is across the globe shows how much work needs to be done to ensure people have the right information on the disease, how it happens and who is at risk. As the average age of the global population continues to increase, it is important to be informed about health conditions that could affect us and know where to turn for support and medical advice. The IFA is proud to endorse such important research seeking to address a major gap in public awareness and knowledge of the serious and life altering condition of shingles.”

The survey also investigated where adults turn to for health-related information. Results highlight that over 40% of adults in the over-50 age group regularly turn to social media such as Facebook and Instagram,1 while nearly a third use internet search engines like Google at least once a week for such information,1 as opposed to reaching out to their doctors as often.1

In the 12 months leading to September 2023, there was a 70% increase in the number of Google searches for the question, “Is shingles contagious by touch or airborne?”, 16 highlighting both an increasing interest in shingles and the continued lack of understanding about the disease.

Piyali Mukherjee, Vice President and Head of Global Medical Affairs, Vaccines, GSK, said: “Shingles can have a profound impact on the lives of people and their families. With over half of the respondents believing that shingles can be ‘caught’ from someone else suffering from the disease, among other frequent misunderstandings revealed by the survey, these results emphasize the continuing need for enhanced awareness for this condition. We encourage all adults over 50 to approach their healthcare professionals for guidance on how to recognize, understand, and reduce their risk of developing this debilitating disease.”

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