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Counting Down the Herpes Virus

by Veronica Milligan

When we hear the word “herpes,” we instantly think of the sexually transmitted disease and cold sores. The herpes virus is actually much more diverse than this. There are eight different strains that can cause a variety of symptoms in humans. Some herpes viruses actually cause illnesses that many of us commonly experience like chickenpox and mononucleosis.

The most recently identified strain of herpes virus is known as Kaposi Sarcoma-Associated Herpesvirus (KSAH) or human herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8). There has been little research on this strain since its discovery in 1994. KSAH is endemic among adult populations in Africa and is suspected to be transmitted during childhood according to research done by several authors* in the “Journal of Infectious Diseases” published in 2009.

Two other recently discovered strains from the family Herpesviridae are known as human herpesvirus 6 and 7 (HHV-6 and HHV-7 respectively). HHV-7 is a known cause for a variety of rashes in children according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). HHV-6, according to a 2005 review in the NCBI, is a major concern for transplant recipients and a contributor to central nervous system diseases.  There are therapy treatment options available for HHV-6.

Human herpesvirus 5 is more commonly called cytomegalovirus (CMV). CMV is a common viral infection that anyone can get, but few people show symptoms of according to the Mayo Clinic. Pregnant women and newborn babies are the most likely to experience symptoms of the disease, which include jaundice (yellow skin and eyes), rash, fever, diarrhea and others. Treatment is not usually necessary, however antiviral medication is available. The Mayo Clinic recommends practicing good hygiene to prevent the spread of the virus.

Epstein-barr Virus (EBV) is the human herpesvirus 4 (HHV-4). This virus is spread primarily through body fluids, especially saliva according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). It can cause infectious mononucleosis (mono for short). Junior graphic arts major Shelby Holybee contracted the disease between her sophomore and junior years at Blackburn College and had typical symptoms: extreme fatigue, shortness of breath and an inflamed throat. “I assumed I got it from sharing drinks with my friend who had it at one point,” said Holybee. The CDC lists sharing drinking glasses as one method of spreading the virus and notes about 90 percent of adults have had this virus in their system. They recommend not kissing or sharing objects like toothbrushes, food or drinks with a person who has EBV to prevent its spread.

Chickenpox and shingles are also caused by a strain of herpes virus; Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV) is human herpesvirus 3 (HHV-3). The CDC reports that the virus is spread through the respiratory tract and is highly contagious. There is a highly effective vaccine for this virus according to the CDC.

The final two strains of Herpesviridae are the ones most well known. The herpes simplex virus is divided into two types: type one and type two (HSV-1 and HSV-2). According to the World Health Organization (WHO) HSV-1 is mostly transmitted via oral-to-oral contact and causes painful blisters around the mouth. The WHO reports that most HSV-1 infections are actually acquired during childhood and are asymptotic (they show no symptoms). The infection is lifelong. It is possible for HSV-1 to also cause genital herpes.

HSV-2, according to the WHO, is almost exclusively sexually transmitted and causes genital herpes. The infection often shows no symptoms, but when it does they include fever, swollen lymphs and painful open sores called ulcers on and around the genitals. Antiviral drugs can relieve symptoms but cannot cure the infection. The WHO recommends that persons with active symptoms abstain from sexual intercourse but warns that the virus can still spread even when symptoms are not present. Condoms are effective, however HSV can be found in areas not covered by a condom. The WHO reports that research is currently underway to develop more effective HSV prevention such as vaccines.

The herpesvirus is not just genital herpes, and as we learn more about the various strains, scientists everywhere are making an effort to prevent their transmission.

*Authors of the article in the “Journal of Infectious Diseases” are Lisa M. Butler, Grant Dorsey, Wolfgang Hladik, Phillip J. Roesenthal, Christian Brander, Tortsten B. Neilands, Georgina Mbisa, Denise Whitby, Photini Kiepiela, Anisa Mosam, Similo Mzomo, Sheila C. Dollard and Jeffrey N. Martin.

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