Some Good News About Three Sexually Transmitted Viruses

Scientists are hard at work finding ways to improve your health!

With so much bad news emblazoned across headlines in every newspaper you look at, the world might seem like a gloomy place. So let’s take one depressing subject — disease — and peel away the sad outer layer to find silver linings of optimism.

When it comes to infections, a lot of us blame one thing: germs, also known as “bugs” — “pathogens” if we’re fancy. Some people might not think of infectious diseases as being that big of a deal — after a round of antibiotics, you’ll be on the mend. Unfortunately, antibiotics only work for bacteria, but a lot of diseases are caused by other types of germs — for which antibiotics are no match. One type of germ is called a virus, and they can’t be cured. Sometimes they can be prevented with vaccines or treated with drugs. For example, the major strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) can be prevented with a vaccine called Gardasil, herpes simplex virus can be suppressed with antiviral drugs, and HIV can be controlled with antiretroviral drugs — but none of these infections can be cured. HPV is usually defeated by the immune system, but herpes and HIV are with you for life.

But it’s not all bad. Around the world, individual scientists have picked their “favorite” viruses and are devoting their lives to finding better prevention strategies, better treatments, and even cures. Let’s check in with some of the latest headlines touting the successes of science.

New Hope for a Herpes Vaccine

A herpes vaccine would be a blockbuster — given how common this sexually transmitted infection is, a preventive shot could help a lot of couples discuss their herpes status without as much fear of judgment and stigma.

Herpes might cause an “outbreak” — unpleasant symptoms that include genital sores — but afterward the virus goes dormant in the nerve cells, hiding from the immune system. In some people, the virus can come out of its dormancy to cause flare-ups of symptoms, but once it’s had its fun it retreats back to the nerve cells.

Earlier this year, media reported on a promising new candidate for a herpes vaccine. Using a completely different strategy than previous, failed herpes vaccines, the researchers behind this breakthrough targeted the part of the virus that allows it to hide from our immune systems. If this vaccine works as hoped, recipients will be able to mount an immune defense when exposed to the virus, blocking it from establishing a permanent home in nerve cells. It might even suppress outbreaks in people who already have herpes. Continue reading

STD Awareness: The Herpes Virus and Herpes Medications

herpes medicationOne of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is herpes, which affects an estimated 1 out of 6 Americans between the ages of 14 and 49. Herpes is caused by a virus, and one reason that it’s so widespread is that the herpesvirus is ancient. Prehistoric, even — dinosaurs are thought to have been infected by herpesviruses! The Herpesviridae family is huge, with at least 100 members infecting mammals, birds, reptiles, bony fish, amphibians, and oysters.


Herpes drugs from the acyclovir family physically block herpes DNA from replicating — which is pretty amazing!


Humans can suffer from both oral herpes and genital herpes, which are caused by two types of the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1 and HSV-2). Recent genetic analysis reveals that the virus that causes cold sores, HSV-1, has been evolving with us since before we were Homo sapiens, diverging from the viruses that infected our common ancestors 6 million years ago. Interestingly, we didn’t acquire HSV-2 — which mostly causes genital herpes — until our Homo erectus ancestors caught it from early chimpanzees 1.6 million years ago, well before the emergence of modern Homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago.

Most people know what the virus doesgenital herpes can involve blisters, pain, and itching — but most people don’t know how the virus works. Luckily, scientists have uncovered a lot of the virus’ secrets — which has allowed them to develop some pretty effective drugs that we can use to foil herpes’ plans. Continue reading

My Partner Just Told Me They Have Herpes. I Don’t. Now What?

handsHas your new partner just informed you that he or she has herpes? People have many reactions when hearing this kind of news — and, depending on how informed you are about herpes, your reaction might be tinged with panic or fear. If that’s your instinct, try to keep those feelings in check: Your partner might be feeling very vulnerable, so it’s best not to react with shunning or shaming.


More than 80 percent of people with genital herpes are unaware of their infections.


By being open about his or her STD status, your partner has demonstrated a sense of responsibility toward your sexual health and a respect for your ability to make informed decisions. It’s possible that your partner was not given this same consideration by the person from whom he or she contracted herpes — some people with genital herpes choose not to disclose their status, while most don’t even know they carry the virus in the first place.

Herpes is more widespread than most of us realize. It can be caused by one of two strains of the herpes simplex virus: HSV-1 or HSV-2. While HSV-1 is more commonly associated with cold sores and HSV-2 is more commonly associated with genital herpes, either virus can infect the genital area. One estimate states that 1 out of 5 American females and 1 out of 9 American males between 14 to 49 years of age have a genital HSV-2 infection.

Now that you know your partner has herpes, you might have some questions. How easy is it to transmit genital herpes from one partner to another? What can you do to minimize your chances of catching the virus? And, while it is certainly stigmatized in our culture, is herpes something to fear? Continue reading

STD Awareness: Genital Herpes

Herpes viruses inside a cell. Image: CDC

In the most recent Planned Parenthood annual report, a Tucson mother describes her daughter’s mysterious ailment, which stumped doctors at the hospital. Her symptoms included an itchy, tender genital area with painful lesions — but the physicians who “pored over her poor vulva” decided it was nothing to worry about and sent her home. A few days later, though, she called her mother in the middle of the night, sobbing, her condition now worse. “There were lesions, pustules, and the area was deep red,” her mother wrote. So this time, she called the experts: Planned Parenthood.


If you have symptoms, get checked out! An accurate diagnosis is more likely when symptoms are present.


The condition wasn’t nothing — it was genital herpes, and the mother praised Planned Parenthood for “spot[ting] something other pros missed.” Indeed, sexual and reproductive health is what we do — day in and day out! Whether you’re young or old, sexually active or celibate, insured or paying out of pocket or eligible for sliding-scale fees, we’re here to share our expertise with you.

The word “herpes” comes from an ancient Greek word that means “to creep,” after the “creeping” nature of skin lesions that might spread across areas of one’s body. We now know that the herpes simplex virus can “creep” up and down nerves, retreating to nerve cells to go dormant and returning back to the surface of the skin to cause symptoms or “shed” new virus particles. (Like a cat sheds fur, so too can people shed viruses.) Continue reading

STD Awareness: How Can I Protect Myself if My Partner Has Herpes?

herpes protectionHas your partner, or potential partner, recently informed you that he or she has been diagnosed with genital herpes? After thinking about it, did you decide to continue with the relationship, despite not being infected with the virus that causes genital herpes yourself? Congratulations — the two of you are now a “discordant couple,” which means that one of you has genital herpes and the other doesn’t. While you might have come to the conclusion that acquiring a herpes simplex virus (HSV) infection below the belt won’t be the end of the world, you still might want to stay discordant — and do everything you can to minimize chances of virus transmission.


Condoms, medication, and abstinence during outbreaks can reduce risk for herpes transmission.


You can read all about herpes elsewhere on this blog, but here’s a quick rundown: Genital herpes can be caused by one of two strains of the herpes simplex virus: HSV-1 or HSV-2. While HSV-1 is more commonly associated with cold sores and HSV-2 is more commonly associated with genital herpes, either virus can infect the genital area. One estimate states that 1 out of 6 Americans between 14 to 49 years of age has a genital HSV-2 infection. Since genital herpes infections can also be caused by HSV-1, the number of people with genital herpes is actually higher.

Barring total abstinence from all sexual activity, you won’t be able to protect yourself completely from acquiring HSV — but there are many steps that you and your partner can take to decrease risk. Studies on discordant couples show that viral transmission can be reduced with condoms, antiviral herpes medications, practicing abstinence when symptoms are present, and patient education.

Condoms

Latex condoms protect against most STDs, especially fluid-borne infections like HIV and gonorrhea. But condoms also provide some protection against STDs that are transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, including genital herpes. One large study found that condom usage was associated with lower rates of HSV-2 acquisition — the more frequently someone used condoms, the lower the risk. Unsurprisingly, risk was also associated with frequency of sex acts: People having vaginal or anal intercourse more than twice weekly were 77 percent more likely to acquire HSV-2 than people having less sex. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Asymptomatic Shedding of Herpes

Q: Can I catch herpes if my partner isn’t having an outbreak?
A: Yes, your partner can transmit the virus even if he or she isn’t experiencing symptoms. In fact, most genital herpes infections are transmitted in the absence of symptoms.

When most people think about genital herpes, they think about the symptoms that are associated with it: clusters of blistery sores around the genitals or buttocks. But most genital herpes infections don’t have symptoms — they are asymptomatic — or the symptoms are so mild or nonspecific that the person suffering from them doesn’t even make the mental connection. It is estimated that only 10 to 15 percent of people with herpes exhibit symptoms, which may be a silver lining for the millions who unknowingly carry the virus, but it also helps it spread more easily.

What is genital herpes, anyway?

Genital herpes can be caused by two types of herpes simplex viruses — either herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). The difference between the two viruses is that HSV-1 is more active when it infects the facial region, where it can cause cold sores; HSV-2 is more active when it infects the genitals. Genital infections with HSV-1 tend to be milder than genital infections with HSV-2. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that, among Americans 14 to 49 years old, 1 out of 5 women and 1 out of 9 men have a genital HSV-2 infection. Because that stat doesn’t count genital HSV-1 infections, the overall number of people with genital herpes is actually higher.

An “outbreak” occurs when genital herpes symptoms appear. The most well-known symptom is a cluster of blisters or open sores in the genital or rectal area. Continue reading

Can Herpes Be Cured Naturally?

Many of us are infected with herpes simplex virus, which can be transmitted sexually to cause genital herpes. Although herpes is incurable, there are antivirals that can help reduce symptoms. But, because not everyone wants to take pharmaceuticals, a lot of us might seek alternatives in an attempt to treat or even cure our herpes infections.


“Natural” doesn’t necessarily mean safe or effective, so be critical.


For centuries, we have treated herpes in many ways — though not necessarily successfully! In the early 1800s, a British treatment involved placing lint between the tip of the penis and the foreskin. It was claimed that this would cause herpes lesions to heal within 14 days — not coincidentally, this is about how long it takes for them to heal on their own, untreated. Later that century, a London surgeon promoted an arsenic-based solution as a cure for recurrent herpes outbreaks. He presented the cases of a couple of patients. One had been suffering from outbreaks for six years, and after a course of this treatment he allegedly never experienced them again. Another patient had been experiencing recurring outbreaks for four years, and after taking this treatment for a year, his outbreaks “became less and finally cleared altogether.”

We now know that, even without treatment, herpes outbreaks generally become less severe over time, and often stop flaring up completely. When outbreaks do occur, they clear on their own, without treatment. This phenomenon is called “regression to the mean,” and many promoters of bogus remedies rely on it for the appearance that their products work. Because we often think that two things that happen at the same time are related, and that one causes the other, we might attribute the clearing of our herpes lesions to whatever “treatment” we were taking, regardless of whether or not it actually benefited us.

The only way we can know if treatments actually work is to compare them with standard medications or placebos (such as identical-looking sugar pills) in well-designed clinical trials. In such studies, patients are assigned to either medication or placebo at random, which is called “randomization” and is like flipping a coin. And, to protect against introducing bias into the study’s outcomes, trials should be “double-blinded,” meaning that neither researchers nor patients know whether the placebo or the medication under study is being administered. The “miracle cures” you hear about usually haven’t been subjected to such scientific rigor — if they have, the results usually aren’t promising. Continue reading