WHO issues plea for herpes vaccine with billions now infected worldwide

1 May 2020

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The WHO has warned that the number of people worldwide with genital or oral herpes now numbers in the billions.

While the world continues to tackle the spread of the coronavirus, another more familiar virus has already infected much of the planet. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), new estimates suggest that several billion people are living with an oral herpes infection, while as many as half a billion are living with genital herpes.

Based on the most recently available data from 2016, it’s estimated that 13pc of the world’s population aged between 15 and 49 were infected with herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).

HSV-2 is almost exclusively sexually transmitted, causing genital herpes. Infection can lead to recurring, often painful, genital sores in up to a third of people infected.

Meanwhile, herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is transmitted by oral-to-oral contact, sometimes leading to cold sores. However, HSV-1 can also be transmitted to the genitals through oral sex, resulting in genital herpes.

The latest estimates suggested that 67pc of the world’s population aged between zero and 49 had HSV-1, amounting to an estimated 3.7bn people. While the majority of these infections were oral, as many as 192m were estimated to have developed genital HSV-1 infection.

Danger of HIV infection

Dr Ian Askew of the WHO warned that herpes is a substantial health concern worldwide as, aside from causing pain and discomfort, it can have a “profound effect on sexual and reproductive health”.

Those with HSV-2 are at least three times more likely to become infected with HIV, if exposed, meaning it plays a substantial role in the spread of HIV globally, according to the WHO.

While antiviral medications such as acyclovir, famciclovir and valacyclovir can help reduce the severity and frequency of herpes symptoms, no cure or vaccine has been developed to date.

Dr Meg Doherty, director of the WHO Department of Global HIV, hepatitis and STI programmes, said: “A vaccine against HSV infection would not only help to promote and protect the health and wellbeing of millions of people, particularly women, worldwide – it could also potentially have an impact on slowing the spread of HIV, if developed and provided alongside other HIV prevention strategies.”

Researchers from the University of Würzburg in Germany recently published a study that they said revealed a great deal more about HSV-1, making it possible to study the individual genes of the virus more precisely than before.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic