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Do Vaccines Cause Herpes Zoster?

Conclusion | Epidemiological Evidence | Proposed Biological Mechanism | Archives | References


Varicella vaccines can rarely cause herpes zoster due to vaccine-strain viral reactivation. Other vaccines currently routinely recommended to the general population in the U.S.* do not cause vaccine-strain viral reactivation.

Epidemiological Evidence

The 2012 report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), now called the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), described one study assessing varicella vaccination with vaccine-strain viral reactivation [1]; however, it did not provide convincing evidence due to a lack of validity and precision [2]. One large randomized controlled trial published since the 2012 IOM report and conducted in ten European countries found one unconfirmed case of herpes zoster infection and one papular rash out of 4976 recipients of either the MMR vaccine Priorix® and the varicella vaccine Varilrix® or the combination MMRV vaccine Priorix-Tetra®, all vaccines not used in the U.S. Both of these serious adverse events** were reported as recovered or resolved [3].

Proposed Biological Mechanism

Varicella vaccines are live attenuated viral vaccines, and are therefore able to replicate in the body. Generalized rash is reported in 4-6% of recipients. Systemic reactions are uncommon but possible. Mild zoster illness (shingles) resulting from a latent infection with varicella vaccine virus has been reported. Some cases of herpes zoster after vaccination are due to reactivation of wild type varicella virus from a prior (usually unrecognized) primary varicella infection [4]. Immunodeficiency is a contraindication for most live vaccines, including varicella vaccine. For more information, see the Varicella summary.

The 2012 IOM report described cases of vaccine-strain viral reactivation after varicella vaccination [4-23], and concluded that these cases together presented strong mechanistic evidence supporting an association [2]. A laboratory-documented case of herpes zoster caused by the vaccine-strain varicella zoster virus in an immunocompetent recipient of zoster vaccine was reported in 2014 [24]. In immunodeficient persons, vaccine-strain viral reactivation can result in meningitis [4, 9, 21-23] or encephalitis [11, 20].

* These conclusions do not necessarily consider vaccines recommended only for special populations in the United States such as Yellow Fever vaccine (international travelers) or Smallpox vaccine (military personnel).
** A serious adverse event is defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as resulting "in any of the following outcomes: Death, a life-threatening adverse event, inpatient hospitalization or prolongation of existing hospitalization, a persistent or significant incapacity or substantial disruption of the ability to conduct normal life functions, or a congenital anomaly/birth defect. Important medical events that may not result in death, be life-threatening, or require hospitalization may be considered serious when, based upon appropriate medical judgment, they may jeopardize the patient or subject and may require medical or surgical intervention to prevent one of the outcomes listed in this definition." This definition is found in Title 21, §312.32 of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations.


1. Donahue JG, Kieke BA, Yih WK, et al. Varicella vaccination and ischemic stroke in children: is there an association? Pediatrics 2009;123:e228-34.
2. Institute of Medicine. In: Stratton K, Ford A, Rusch E, Clayton EW, eds. Adverse Effects of Vaccines: Evidence and Causality. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2012.
3. Prymula R, Bergsaker MR, Esposito S, et al. Protection against varicella with two doses of combined measles-mumps-rubella-varicella vaccine versus one dose of monovalent varicella vaccine: a multicentre, observer-blind, randomised, controlled trial. Lancet 2014;383:1313-24.
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8. Bryan CJ, Prichard MN, Daily S, et al. Acyclovir-resistant chronic verrucous vaccine strain varicella in a patient with neuroblastoma. The Pediatric infectious disease journal 2008;27:946-8.
9. Chaves SS, Haber P, Walton K, et al. Safety of varicella vaccine after licensure in the United States: experience from reports to the vaccine adverse event reporting system, 1995-2005. J Infect Dis 2008;197 Suppl 2:S170-7.
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11. Goulleret N, Mauvisseau E, Essevaz-Roulet M, Quinlivan M, Breuer J. Safety profile of live varicella virus vaccine (Oka/Merck): five-year results of the European Varicella Zoster Virus Identification Program (EU VZVIP). Vaccine 2010;28:5878-82.
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13. Jean-Philippe P, Freedman A, Chang MW, et al. Severe varicella caused by varicella-vaccine strain in a child with significant T-cell dysfunction. Pediatrics 2007;120:e1345-9.
14. Kraft JN, Shaw JC. Varicella infection caused by Oka strain vaccine in a heart transplant recipient. Arch Dermatol 2006;142:943-5.
15. Kramer JM, LaRussa P, Tsai WC, et al. Disseminated vaccine strain varicella as the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome-defining illness in a previously undiagnosed child. Pediatrics 2001;108:E39.
16. Levy O, Orange JS, Hibberd P, et al. Disseminated varicella infection due to the vaccine strain of varicella-zoster virus, in a patient with a novel deficiency in natural killer T cells. J Infect Dis 2003;188:948-53.
17. Waters V, Peterson KS, LaRussa P. Live viral vaccines in a DiGeorge syndrome patient. Arch Dis Child 2007;92:519-20.
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19. Ota K, Kim V, Lavi S, et al. Vaccine-strain varicella zoster virus causing recurrent herpes zoster in an immunocompetent 2-year-old. The Pediatric infectious disease journal 2008;27:847-8.
20. Chouliaras G, Spoulou V, Quinlivan M, Breuer J, Theodoridou M. Vaccine-associated herpes zoster ophthalmicus [correction of opthalmicus] and encephalitis in an immunocompetent child. Pediatrics 2010;125:e969-72.
21. Iyer S, Mittal MK, Hodinka RL. Herpes zoster and meningitis resulting from reactivation of varicella vaccine virus in an immunocompetent child. Annals of emergency medicine 2009;53:792-5.
22. Levin MJ, Dahl KM, Weinberg A, Giller R, Patel A, Krause PR. Development of resistance to acyclovir during chronic infection with the Oka vaccine strain of varicella-zoster virus, in an immunosuppressed child. J Infect Dis 2003;188:954-9.
23. Levin MJ, DeBiasi RL, Bostik V, Schmid DS. Herpes zoster with skin lesions and meningitis caused by 2 different genotypes of the Oka varicella-zoster virus vaccine. J Infect Dis 2008;198:1444-7.
24. Tseng HF, et al. Herpes zoster caused by vaccine-strain varicella zoster virus in an immunocompetent recipient of zoster vaccine. Clin Infect Dis 2014;58(8):1125-8.

The information on this page was last updated on May 16 2018 |© 2020 Institute for Vaccine