updated 3/24/2011 5:09:02 PM ET 2011-03-24T21:09:02

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday expanded approval of a shingles vaccine from Merck to patients between the ages of 50 and 59.

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The vaccine, called Zostavax, is already approved for patients of 60 years and older.

"The likelihood of shingles increases with age. The availability of Zostavax to a younger age group provides an additional opportunity to prevent this often painful and debilitating disease," said Karen Midthun, director of the FDA's center for biologics.

Zostavax was first approved in May 2006.

Shingles causes blisters and severe pain that can last from several weeks to years. The illness is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. The virus lies dormant in the nervous system for years but can reappear in the form of shingles for reasons that are not entirely understood.

The FDA said in a statement it approved the drug based on a 22,000-patient study in which Zostavax decreased the risk of shingles by 70 percent. Side effects with the vaccine included redness, pain and swelling at the injection site.

Shingles affects roughly 200,000 people in the U.S. each year between the ages of 50 and 59.

Merck & Co. Inc. is based in Whitehouse Station, N.J. Its shares rose 9 cents to close at $32.72 Thursday.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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