Herpes wins again

By Contributing Writer

Megan Purzarang, Contributing Writer

High hopes that a new vaccine against genital herpes would successfully protect people from the dreaded disease were recently dashed when the vaccine was found to be largely ineffective.

The results of the two-year controlled trial published Jan. 5 in the New England Journal of Medicine were doubly discouraging because the vaccine seemed promising in two earlier but narrower studies.

“I was quite disappointed,” said Dr. Robert Belshe, a researcher at Saint Louis University School of Medicine and co-leader of the study. “All of the investigators were very disappointed.”

However, according Belshe, the results of the vaccine trial, while disappointing, provided information that can help researchers investigate new ways to approach the virus and explore changes they might make to the vaccine that will make it more successful.

“This was a large study, a very important study,” Belshe said. “The outcome is very disappointing, but it’s very, very important. The science here is incredibly important and will guide [us] to [future] herpes vaccines.”

Those who are battling the herpes simplex virus know the physical and psychological burden the disease imposes from the moment symptoms become evident. Once the virus resides in the body, it cannot be cured. Prevention of infection was the goal of the vaccine developed by GlaxoSmithKline, a pharmaceutical company.

The clinical trial was conducted throughout the U.S. and funded by GlaxoSmithKline and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The vaccine was tested on a group of 8,323 uninfected women ranging in age from 18–30. Some group participants received the vaccine, while others were in a control group and received a hepatitis A vaccine that served as a placebo. During the course of 20 months, each of the women was assessed. The study found that the vaccine protected against HSV-1 but not HSV-2, which is a much greater threat. The results showed, the vaccine was only 20 percent effective overall, well below the level that would make a vaccine worth approving for use in the general population.

There are two types of herpes. Both can be transmitted through mouth-to-mouth, mouth-to-genitals or genital-to-genital contact. The HSV-1 strain is primarily oral and causes cold sores in the mouth and lip area, although it has been known to infect the genital area as well. Genital herpes, or HSV-2, causes blister-like sores in the genital areas.

Once the virus is contracted, it takes up permanent residency in the body. Symptoms generally appear three to 14 days after exposure to the virus and typically reoccur every two to three weeks.

Although herpes infections are spread through direct contact, they do not always involve sexual transmission. Babies who are born to mothers with genital herpes are at high risk for birth defects.

“The biggest problem with genital herpes is when babies are born to infected women, some of them will get an infection as a newborn, and that can lead to severe complications, including central nervous system damage, brain damage and even death,” Belshe said.

Physical complications aside, the mental effect that contracting herpes can have on a person is severe. According to Dr. Thomas Boyd, a family practice physician in Greenbay, Wis., 25 percent of women ages 14–30 have the virus. He said they often deal with significant psychological issues as a consequence of the virus. There are so many cases being diagnosed that the recommended counseling to help with the psychological effects is often not available.

Kate Bridgewater, a student at Southeast Missouri State University, said she experienced psychological trauma after she was diagnosed with herpes.

“I’m a total relationship-oriented person, and I felt dirty,” Bridgewater said. “It makes you feel like you’re never going to be good enough, like you know there are people out there who don’t have it.”

Boyd said if there were a vaccine available, it could help quell some of the psychological and physical ramifications of the virus.

“If one [a vaccine] was available that was safe, I would recommend it to help with the psychological impact,” he said.