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Top 10 Fascinating Facts Involving Herpes

Jana loves compiling and sharing lists about the natural world, science, and history.

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There are more than 100 herpes viruses. Eight infect humans, including the embarrassing genital kind. But there’s more to herpes than just being an annoying STD. The FDA feeds the virus to cancer patients and astronauts also experience mysterious breakouts in space. What’s more, scientists recently discovered patient zero for genital herpes and why this type could stay incurable forever.

10. Patient Zero

The World Health Organisation estimates that one in six people has genital herpes. Curiously, other primates have a single herpes simplex virus. Humans have two. Understanding why our story is different meant finding patient zero - the first human with genital herpes.

In 2017, scientists studied fossils of all the primate species that once overlapped with our human ancestors. Why? Because a kerfuffle with somebody from another species gave us herpes. They also looked at the history of the disease and discovered that both viruses are remarkably ancient. These organisms existed long before the homo branch evolved into modern humans. HSV-1 is about 6 million years old and causes cold sores. The sexually transmitted HSV-2 infected humanity 1.4 million years ago.

The prime suspects in this encounter were identified as Homo erectus (the human ancestor) and Paranthropus boisei (an ancestral chimpanzee). For the scourge to jump between the two species, bodily fluids had to be exchanged. The study didn’t go into detail about how this might’ve happened but one can imagine that the first Homo erectus to be infected either fought, mated with or ate Paranthropus boisei.

9. The Death of Mariana Sifrit

The Sifrit family brought their new daughter home in 2017. Baby Mariana was healthy until somebody with HSV-1 kissed her. The infection gave her viral meningitis. After a rapid decline, the week-old infant died.

The media ran with the story. People panicked. But doctors shook their heads. While the latter did not downplay Mariana’s death, they knew the truth. Losing a newborn because they were kissed by somebody with herpes is very rare. There is no reason why grandparents cannot cuddle when Junior comes home from the hospital. That being said, parents are free to make their own decisions. After all, nobody appreciates a visitor with cold sores aiming a smooch at their baby.

Paranthropus boisei.

Paranthropus boisei.

8. Herpes Turns Liquid To Infect Humans

A Swedish University measured something called “DNA pressure” inside of viruses. This is the force that injects viral DNA into a host’s cells. Incredibly, the pressure was five times stronger than that of an uncorked champagne bottle.

But all the force in the world cannot mush DNA through without destroying the cell itself. So how does a virus enter without ruining what is basically its breeding pen? To answer this question, two viruses were chosen for a new study. One was herpes.

The booger revealed a neat trick. First, the virus warmed itself to the same temperature as the human body. Then its DNA turned liquid. This allowed the champagne force to inject herpes into cells - which was also the true moment of infection.

The discovery surprised everyone. Even more so when they got the same the results with the second virus (E. coli). Herpes and E. coli separated from their common ancestor millions of years ago. The fact that they kept the same trait suggests that more viruses could be melting themselves into our cells.

7. Herpes Could Control Invasive Species

Australia has a carp problem. Over time, the European carp spread from central Asia to the rest of the world. During the 1960s, the fish became a pest in Australian waters. The freshwater creatures are prolific. Their numbers have spread throughout most of the continent and threaten native species.

In 2016, officials eyed their viral choices. They wanted a virus that would kill only the European carp and kill a lot of them quickly. The winner was CyHV-3. This strain is also known as “carp herpes.” Under the right circumstances, the disease can wipe out 95 percent of a carp population. Just ask any koi keeper with this apocalypse in their pond.

Things are not as simple as releasing a few infected specimens into a river. A lot of research is needed to make sure other fish, amphibians and animals are truly safe from CyHV-3. A failsafe program is needed to manage the virus and officials must also work with environmental groups and local communities. The viral warfare isn’t cheap, either. Should the program be approved, its development could take years and AU$15 million (about US$11.2 million) to complete.

6. Abalone Blood Fights HSV-1

A few years ago, a man had warts on his hands. Then he found a job at a factory where he handled the Tasmanian blacklip abalone. After a month, the warts began to heal. Australian scientists pounced on mystery and discovered that abalone blood was the key.

Abalone are sea snails with blue blood. The protein behind this colour is hemocyanin and the Australian study soon realized that the compound had strong anti-viral properties. Goodbye warts. But an additional find was even more astonishing. Hemocyanin prevents HSV-1 from infecting human cells.

Scientists have been looking for such a barrier. Since there is no cure, prevention is the best defence. The properties of abalone blood are more than just a shield. For those already in the grip of the virus, the blue juice promises new treatments to shorten unsightly flare-ups. Yay to fewer days with blisters and cold sores. And a hat tip to the poor snails who make it possible.

5. Kissing Could Cause Infertility

In 2016, the University of Ferrara examined women with primary infertility. In other words, they could never carry a baby. A quarter of them had no medical reason to explain their condition. After a bunch of tests, the results were interesting. Around 43 percent of the women had HHV-6A.

This herpes strain was absent in the control group (women with no fertility problems). Those with HHV-6A also produced abnormal levels of cytokines, a protein that protects fertilized eggs and helps with fetal development. It is plausible that unusual cytokine levels could interfere with conception. But if this is the case, the “how” is not fully understood.

An earlier study also found that HHV-6A turns the salivary glands into a herpes farm. The virus, being the gross thing that it is, only lives inside spit. When two people kiss, saliva is exchanged and this is how contamination is most likely to happen. But you can forget about testing the parent of your future children with a mouth swab. HHV-6A is rarely detectable in blood or saliva.

4. A Polar Bear Died From Zebra Herpes

In 2010, the staff at Germany’s Wuppertal Zoo went into panic mode. Their two polar bears had encephalitis. More commonly known as the “brain-swelling disease,” this condition comes with an unfortunate problem. There are so many causes that testing for them all is time-consuming. By the time herpes was identified as the problem, one of the bears had already died.

But this wasn’t a normal case. The virus was a hybrid between two strains of equine herpes. Scientists felt that it must’ve originated in zebras but the bear enclosure was far away from the zoo’s striped herd. The two areas were also cleaned by different people, eliminating the possibility that a staff member had caused the cross-contamination.

The unknown vector wasn’t the only mystery. No one could explain how equine herpes jumped the species-barrier to polar bears or what made the infection so brutal. The bad news did not end there. It was eventually discovered that the same mishmash virus had popped up in another zoo years before. That case had also ended with a dead polar bear. This means that the strange and deadly herpes in Germany wasn’t a one-time deal. It could happen again.

Elephants at Wuppertal Zoo where the mysterious hybrid virus broke out.

Elephants at Wuppertal Zoo where the mysterious hybrid virus broke out.

3. HSV-2 Is Practically Incurable

Just to recap - one simplex virus causes mouth sores (HSV-1) and the other triggers genital herpes (HSV-2). Neither are particularly cherished. The painful cold sores interfere with everything from eating to appearing in public. The sexually transmitted version is a killjoy due to the physical symptoms and social stigma. They are bad enough on their own without pulling a German zoo on everyone. Huh? Read on.

In 2019, a worrying trend appeared. The simplex viruses are breeding with each other.

Scientists have known for years that HSV-1 and HSV-2 can blend their genetic material. But nobody grabbed their hair and screamed at the thought of having both simplex versions at once. Expert opinion was soothing. According to them, the strains mixed in the distant past and never again. A 2019 study showed how wrong that opinion was. The fornication had never stopped.

Curiously, only genital herpes takes genetic material from the encounter. As a result, many patients are infected with a strain of HSV-2 that carries large chunks of HSV-1. This gene shifting should worry anyone hoping for a cure. Scientists fear that genital herpes might grab genes from HSV-1 to outsmart any vaccine it encounters. Looking at the worst-case scenario, this means that HSV-2 is incurable for the foreseeable future.

2. Herpes Fights Cancer

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US. It also causes the most cancer-related deaths. Any new treatment that fights melanoma should be welcomed but... herpes? That’s right. Herpes is the new weapon against inoperable skin cancer.

In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a medication called Imlygic. One of the ingredients is the herpes simplex virus. Yep, the same sisters that cause cold sores and genital herpes. Volunteers welcomed the treatment but endured side-effects like nausea, feeling hot or cold, pseudo-flu and fatigue. Although Imlygic contains a genetically modified version of the virus, it also puts patients at risk of contracting herpes.

Not fun, you say? Let’s look at the bigger picture. The drawbacks are small compared to the devastating effects of melanoma. Sure enough, the study found that by the time the cancer had spread to other parts of the body, the therapy failed to work. But in other patients, the lesions and swollen lymph nodes had shrunk significantly.

1. Space Triggers Herpes In Astronauts

The dream of being an astronaut does not include a herpes breakout. Unfortunately, that is the reality for over half the crew on the Space Shuttle and International Space station. For some reason, the dormant virus wakes up in space. NASA isn’t happy about this. The phenomenon could complicate deep space missions.

Scientists suspect that stress is behind the whole thing. Even astronauts with the best Zen attitude endure immense physical stress during take-off and re-entry. Their bodies are also taxed by months of cosmic radiation and microgravity. When NASA examined samples from astronauts, one of their findings supported the stress-triggers-herpes theory.

They noticed that the crew’s immune cells became less effective in space and required two months back on Earth to recover. Tellingly, the worst affected immune cells were those that normally suppress and eradicate viruses.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Jana Louise Smit

Comments

Jana Louise Smit (author) from South Africa on November 30, 2020:

I'm very happy you enjoyed this list Sp Greaney! I love digging up little-known facts and sharing them. :) Have a great day.

Sp Greaney from Ireland on November 30, 2020:

This was such an interesting article to read. Half of the the information you mentioned here, I had never heard of.

I think viruses are always fascinating because they adapt and change and scientist are always learning more about them. The NASA fact and the cancer fact was new to me.

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