British pensioners in the 70-79 age group are to be offered shingles vaccination. The programme could cover as many as four millions.
The Department of Health has agreed in principle to the recommendation from the Government's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, but the cost of the vaccine could decide the fate of the proposal.
AdvertisementUnder an NHS constitution, which came into place last year, the Government is obliged to follow the recommendation, as long as a cost-effective vaccine can be found.
Shingles affects approximately 250,000 people in the UK every year, and many of them go on to suffer debilitating nerve pain.
As well as long-term pain, shingles infection in the elderly can make them unable to care for themselves.
A vaccine could save money currently spent on extra care for those affected.
Shingles is an illness caused by the same virus responsible for chickenpox in children.
Public health minister Gillian Merron said: "Shingles is an unpleasant illness which can be very serious, especially for older people.
"A vaccination programme would be good news for those in their 70s - it would improve people's quality of life by offering protection against this illness.
He said that ideally, a vaccination programme should start before the end of the year for maximum effectiveness.
Nigel Scott, from the Herpes Virus Association, said that he had been calling for vaccination for some time.
"The evidence suggests it will reduce the incidence of shingles by approximately half, and giving it to people in their seventies is a good start.
"Shingles, and postherpetic pain, can make people's final years a complete misery.
"The cost of shingles is often long-term excruciating pain for many patients but there is also a wider cost to society when people find they are no longer able to look after themselves and need carers or have to move to residential accommodation.
"We would like to see the age of vaccination reduced to 60, or lower, in time. "