updated 12/10/2008 2:28:11 PM ET 2008-12-10T19:28:11

Merck & Co. customers have had to wait months for shingles vaccine shipments through much of this year, but the drugmaker says production should catch up with demand early next year.

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At Kohll's Pharmacies in the Omaha area, the waiting list grew to about 1,500 for the vaccine to prevent shingles, a painful rash that attacks the nervous systems of about 1 million Americans each year. It's caused by the same virus as chickenpox.

Nebraska state epidemiologist Tom Safranek said the shortage of shingles vaccine may have been considered more of a nuisance than a serious problem because before 2006, the vaccine wasn't available.

"But there are people that are going to get shingles because they couldn't get the vaccine," Safranek said.

The Zostavax vaccine is recommended for everyone at least 60 years old and can prevent or lessen the effects of shingles.

Merck spokeswoman Kelley Dougherty said the delays began in 2007 because the Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based company ran short of a key vaccine ingredient that is used in Merck's shingles vaccine and its chickenpox vaccine. Also, demand for both those vaccines jumped after government officials recommended their use in 2006.

The company prioritized production of its chickenpox vaccine, Vavrivax, while it worked to make more of the key ingredient, which is a live but weakened form of the varicella zoster virus.

Kohll's pharmacies have administered about 4,500 doses of Zostavax since the drug was approved in 2006. Kohll said Merck officials told him that makes his chain one of the top providers of the roughly $200 vaccine.

Kohll's president and pharmacist David Kohll said he received a shipment of 1,000 doses of the vaccine last month that was part of what he ordered in May and June.

Many of the people on Kohll's waiting list have been able to get the shots in the past couple of weeks, but Kohll is still waiting for another 500 doses to show up.

"They're still several months behind," Kohll said.

Merck says on its Web site that Zostavax orders placed between July 11 and Sept. 27 should ship out sometime this week.

Dougherty said Merck expects to clear most of its backlog of orders for the shingles vaccine by the end of 2008 and return to a regular shipping schedule in early 2009.

Roughly one in four adults who previously had chickenpox will develop shingles.

The virus that causes chickenpox essentially hibernates for decades in nerve cells around the spine. It reactivates in some patients and causes shingles, probably because the body's immune system weakens with age, doctors say.

The blistering skin rash is most common in older people and usually goes away after four weeks. But one in five sufferers develops severe long-term nerve pain known as post-herpetic neuralgia. Complications also can include scarring and loss of vision or hearing.

"Shingles is a nasty, nasty problem," Safranek said.

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