A new study is underway in the city that offers a new line of treatment and hope to those suffering from shingles, a reactivated form of the chickenpox virus that can lead to chronic and often painful conditions that severely impact many seniors' quality of life. NY1's Erin Billups filed the following report.
Ophthalmologist Elisabeth Cohen didn't initially think she had shingles when her right eye began throbbing with pain in the summer of 2008.
"Within 21 hours I put my hand through my hair and I found out I had a bunch of blisters. That made it very clear," she recalls.
This reactivation of the chickenpox virus - known as herpes zoster - is very common with one million estimated cases a year.
It presents in blisters, and in 15 percent of cases, like Cohen's, it impacts the nerve near the eye which can lead to other complications.
Cohen was treated for cataract, increased eye pressure, post herpetic neuralgia, or debilitating nerve pain, and a detached retina. Her eyesight was also impacted, ending her career as a cornea surgeon.
"My pain only lasted six weeks, my vision is blurry but many people get holes in their eyes. Have to have their lids sewn shut, you can lose eye from this disease. So my eye disease, while it prevented me from continuing my career, I'm still having a good life and I'm able to redirect my focus," says Cohen.
So she's taken aim at the disease. Cohen and her team at NYU Langone were recently awarded a $15 million NIH grant to lead a national multi-site study of more than a thousand patients. They will be testing whether a low dose of antivirals used long term can have the same effect on chronic shingles of the eye, as it does on other forms of herpes.
"Our primary purpose is to reduce the eye disease. But our secondary aim is to see if this treatment reduces the frequency in severity of that... long lasting pain that goes on more than three months and sometimes for the rest of people's lives," explains Cohen.
Cohen says people 50 and older should get the shingles vaccine to avoid all of this. But if they're still diagnosed with shingles, she hopes the new treatment will improve quality of life for seniors.
"Zoster has shown to be a risk factor for the development of major depression in older people. In addition, people age 70 and above, it's the most common cause of suicide due to pain," says Cohen.
Enrollment for the trial is set to begin as early as this spring and several city eye centers are participating.