October 17th, 2019

// Is a Herpes Vaccine Finally Here?

Is a Herpes Vaccine Finally Here?
By Dr. Eddie Fatakhov MD 

A vaccine for genital herpes has been in the works for close to 100 years.  The majority of these prospective vaccines have failed, with some even making it to the human testing phase.  Genital Herpes, or Herpes Simplex Virus-2 (HSV-2), is spread by vaginal, anal or oral sex, and is a more serious condition than common cold sores, or Herpes Simplex Virus-1 (HSV-1). 

Genital herpes is common in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that estimates more than 1 in 6 people aged 14 to 49 have genital herpes, with as many as 90% of these people not even knowing they have herpes due to lack of symptoms.  The concerning issue with genital herpes is that the virus can be spread by people who have no symptoms and essentially, do not know they have it. 

With so many sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that seem to be common knowledge in this day and age, what is important to note about genital herpes is that there is no known cure.  Medications are available to reduce viral outbreaks and lessen the likelihood of spreading the virus to a partner, but no medication to make it disappear.  Carrying genital herpes also makes you 3 to 4 more times at risk for other viruses such as HIV.  The open sores caused by the herpes virus provide an entryway for HIV to enter the body.  Genital herpes is also a little “discriminatory” when it comes to gender and ethnicity. Twice as many women have the virus than men.  Male-to-female transmission of herpes is easier than female-to-male transmission.  Genital herpes is also more common among non-Hispanic blacks than non-Hispanic whites.  The trended research shows that economic differences play a role in the spread of genital herpes.            

           While genital herpes is widespread, it is not the most common STD.  Human papillomavirus (HPV) has the dubious distinction as the most common STD, but it now has a vaccine.  Genital herpes comes in second place, making the development of a vaccine imperative.  University of Pennsylvania scientists may be closer than ever.  Their most recent published results show that immunization not only totally prevented genital herpes in mice and guinea pigs, but it very effectively kept the virus from retreating into nerve roots.  The nerve roots are where the infection can hide and remain symptomless yet still transmitted.  These mice and guinea pigs developed no clinical infection (with symptoms), and no subclinical infection that allows for spreading without symptoms.  The next step is to get approval from the FDA to begin human trials.

            To those who question the importance of such a vaccine, or find yourself saying “just protect yourself, use condoms, get tested, know your partners, etc.”, understand genital herpes can carry much bigger risks than the potential outbreak of occasional painful sores on your body.  If the infection is passed to an infant (which can happen before, during, or after birth), it can cause severe disability or even death from complications such as meningitis.  This fact alone greatly supports the need for vaccination.    

            Although this is exciting news in the medical field, we would still be quite some time away from a final product.  Clinical trials could take 8 years or longer.  The long-term vision would be teenagers receiving an HSV-2 Vaccine alongside the HPV vaccine, which is already protecting them from cervical, throat and mouth cancer.  We have made it a reality that we will now see future populations with a significantly lower prevalence of HPV, resulting in less cancer.  While HSV-2 is a virus with no cure, a vaccine that could prevent someone from ever getting it to begin with, while also potentially reducing HIV transmission rates.  This would be ground-breaking for our future generations.                 

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