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Shingles warning as vaccine coverage remains low

When a red rash appeared on Bernie Blackall's lower back he didn't think much of it but within hours it had developed into what he calls "scream out loud pain".

It was as painful as hitting his thumb with a hammer repeatedly but didn't go away. Instead, it spread across his body and stuck around for nine agonising days.

The school teacher is among the one in three Australians who develop shingles in their lifetime and says it was so bad he would never wish the condition on anyone.

"Do not get shingles, it's scary. It's the pain, I've never known anything like it," Mr Blackall told AAP.

"I couldn't sit down, I couldn't stand up.

"No matter what clothing I did or didn't have on, whenever something touched the shingles I'd scream out."

Shingles is caused by the same virus as chickenpox, which emerges when someone becomes immunocompromised through medical conditions, ageing, being on high-dose steroids or even stress.

It can strike anyone at any age but people over 50 are most at risk.

No medication helped Mr Blackall's pain and it took about 12 months to recover physically and mentally.

The thing that upsets him the most about his ordeal is that it was preventable but he had no idea.

"I would have paid anything for a vaccine but I didn't know it was even on the horizon," he said.

He's not alone, uptake of the vaccine is low despite being available to people over 50 and even free for some.

Just under 47 per cent of 71-79-year-olds are vaccinated against the condition and that drops to almost 31 per cent of those 50-70, according to the most recent national immunisation coverage report.

About 30 per cent of people who have shingles will experience long term complication like pain for months on end, according to Infectious Diseases paediatrician Robert Booy.

The vaccine and diseases expert had shingles as a student and has so far escaped it as an adult but his sister got it three times during cancer treatment.

"You can get this if you're immunosuppressed but you don't have to be immunosuppressed now," Professor Booy said.

"You may develop cancer tomorrow or in five years and getting protected is one way to minimise the complications of getting older."

Prof Booy said severity increases with age and suggested anyone over 50 consider the shingles jab when enquiring about flu, COVID or pneumococcal vaccines heading into winter.

"The act of being vaccinated provides the protection you need. Full stop," he added.

The Zostavax shingles vaccine is currently free for Australians aged 70 and a catch-up scheme for those 71-79 is running until October.

Everyone else has to pay about $200 for the vaccine, which can be administered by a general practitioner or pharmacist in some states.

Mr Blackall says if he had his time again and knew he was eligible, he wouldn't hesitate.

"In the depths of that pain there was nothing I could do. Nothing, it was 10 out of 10 pain."