(NC) It may be hard to believe, but the health of a large number of seniors is being adversely affected due to reactivation of a childhood virus. Decades after having chickenpox, more than 42,000 people in Ontario, most of whom are seniors, develop shingles every year.

Fortunately, there’s now a way for seniors to be protected from shingles, which can strike with little warning. The Ontario government is covering the cost of the shingles vaccine for those who are highly susceptible to getting shingles — people aged 65 to 70. The vaccine reduces the chances of developing shingles and protects against its complications.

This painful condition is caused by the varicella (chickenpox) zoster virus. People get shingles because this virus doesn’t leave the body, even after a person has recovered from chickenpox. It can flare up many years later, most often when a person’s immune system is weakened due to age or as a result of other health problems.

Those with shingles often experience pain, tingling, or itching and then a painful rash. This rash can last for a month or more and is often severe enough to interfere with daily activities.

For some people, complications from the virus lead to worse health problems such as loss of vision. The most common complication is a severe nerve-type pain called post-herpetic neuralgia, which occurs in about 20 per cent of adult cases. Neuromuscular disease, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, can also result.

“Eligible seniors can get the free vaccine from their primary care providers,” explains Dr. David Williams, chief medical officer of health. “They can save about $170 while reducing visits to the emergency room and stays in hospitals.”