There are many people who carry the herpes simplex virus or HSV, so why is there no cure for it yet? Researchers have been trying for a vaccine and cure for many years. The focus has largely been on developing a vaccine, but they have yet been able to find anything very helpful. Scientists recently have been exploring something known as gene editing but have come into some roadblocks during that process. (1)
Herpes is a sexually transmitted disease that is highly contagious and stays in your body forever. Genital herpes is normally due to HSV-2 and oral herpes is most often caused by HSV-1. But someone who carries oral herpes can give the HSV-1 virus to another person’s genital area via oral sex and through other means. This provides herpes not just one but two possibilities from which it can spread.
It is believed approximately one out of six people in the US from ages 14-49 get genital herpes via HSV-2. The CDC notes that overall genital statistics are probably higher because of the chances of getting HSV-1 in the genital area. If you take that into account, genital herpes statistics often are believed to be around 25% for women and 10% for men in the United States. One of the biggest problems with the STD is most people do not know that they have it.
But before one can talk about ‘curing’ herpes or developing a vaccine, it is important to talk about exactly what they are. It is key to note the difference between a cure and a vaccine. A cure, clearly, would heal you if you already carry the virus. A vaccine is similar to installing a set of instructions that are harmless into the body so it knows how to rid itself of the virus if it comes in contact with the body later on. A cure eliminates the threat and a vaccine prevents it.
Understanding What Herpes Is
Herpes is quite different from other viruses that were fatal in the past. The herpes virus is different from measles because the latter will make you sick quickly, as the immune system reacts to the introduction of the virus and is more ready for the virus if it comes back in the future.
Herpes does not always show its symptoms right away. The virus may not even alert the body that it is present. In other cases, the symptoms can come and go. But at other times, herpes can create severe reactions in the body after it is acquired.
The amount of time that herpes can go without symptoms can vary a lot from weeks, to months, to years and even decades. This is known as ‘virus latency.’ The herpes virus also has the ability to inject its own genetic material into the genes of the person who is infected; this is also part of the latency characteristic. (2)
Once HSV gets into the skin cells, it moves on to the nerve cells in DNA and attaches itself there.
The DNA of the herpes virus is more complex than many other infections and is very good at eluding the nervous system; in that way it can act somewhat like a cancer.
Vaccines and What They Can/Can’t Do
Vaccines are a type of precisely engineered practice run for your immune system. Vaccines, on a minimal basis, introduce the disease into your body but do not expose your body to the symptoms of the disease. A vaccine helps your immune system by showing it how to defeat the disease so that it can face the real, serious one and keep you protected.
But herpes is a special case. The issue with developing a vaccine for this STD is that researchers cannot target the vaccine in the immune system. The herpes virus has the ability to move around in the immune system and evade the body’s defenses. It can also move into the nerve cells of the body, making the virus rather stealthy and practically invisible. How can your body defeat a virus if it cannot see them?
So, the option of devising a vaccine for herpes is rather difficult.
Scientists also have been studying gene editing, which is a way to make changes to the DNA of an organism or cell. But there are many drawbacks to gene editing. Some edits may work for a time but they may not last long. Other gene editing techniques give a gene as a sort of ‘spare part’ and it may work for a time but also is not permanent. At this time, it is impossible to control where the gene is inserted in the DNA.
A virologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has performed a study to show how gene editing can get into a latent virus in a nerve cell with the idea to damage some of the DNA in a virus. It is very difficult to get a gene changed, but the virologist thinks that as the technology gets better, a better version of gene editing could allow us to get rid of serious diseases such as herpes and cancer.
If You Are Diagnosed With Herpes
Here are some of the best options that you may have if you are diagnosed:
- The initial treatment: If there are sores present when you are first diagnosed with herpes, you will normally be given a 7-10 day course of treatment on antiviral drugs to make the herpes sores go away or keep them from getting worse.
- Intermittent treatment: You could be prescribed antiviral drugs that you may take as soon as you see sores or when you may feel them coming on. The sores will usually disappear on their own but taking the antiviral drugs can reduce your symptoms and can speed your healing process. This does not mean herpes has been healed or gone away; only the sores have.
- Suppressive treatment: People with the most frequent breakouts could need to take various types of antiviral drugs on a daily basis. This process is known as suppressive therapy. A benefit of using such drugs is when you are not having sores or any other symptoms, they have been proven to reduce your risk of transmitting herpes to a partner. Keep in mind that herpes is very contagious, so this type of therapy is an effective way to keep the virus just inside you.
(1) Herpes Cure - Why We Still Don’t Have a Herpes Vaccine. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/why-we-still-dont-have-a-herpes-vaccine
(2) Can Herpes Be Cured? (2018). Retrieved from https://www.menshealth.com/sex-women/a23305280/can-herpes-be-cured/