By Annabelle Shilling ’24
Herpes is an infamous disease that is often misinterpreted as being simply a common STI. In fact, this family of viruses is responsible for between 35-40 billion infections in humans, and it is one of the most widespread viruses in history. It has three subtypes, known as alpha, beta, and gamma. Not all the infections they cause are sexually transmitted in nature. Exposure to the viruses can begin in early childhood, and while being an infectious disease, it offers unconventional symbiotic benefits to its host.
Some herpesviruses protect against the bubonic plague, as well as Listeria1 infections. While this is an incredible discovery within the pathophysiology field, not all strains of this family have been shown to provide such immunity. Herpes Simplex Viruses, the most widely known ones (causing genital and oral herpes), are an example of strains that lack this benefit. It is also important to note that the study concluding this was conducted on lab mice, not human beings, and that the conclusions reached are not guaranteed to apply to humans. However, it is more likely than not.
Early infection with Herpesviruses has been proven to lessen the likelihood of children developing asthma. There was a study conducted with ninety five thousand infants, and it concluded that the chances of the infants developing asthma varied greatly depending on how old they were during exposure to asthmogenic2 viruses. The children born earlier in the year had a greater amount of time to acquire Herpesvirus infections, and the immunity said infections provided defended the children against the asthmogenic pathogens. Additionally, Herpesviruses have been proven to protect against allergies, as children infected by the strains EBV3 and HCMV4 simultaneously had lesser reactions to allergens.
While there are many surprising benefits to Herpesvirus infection, it is still a disease, and the varying strains of it can have consequences. Herpes has been found to be related to Atherosclerosis5, for instance, as those with the cardiovascular issue have had traces of Herpesvirus DNA within their vascular cells. However, some studies have displayed that Herpesvirus reactivation–not latency–is the cause of such a correlation, as antiviral medication reduced atherogenesis6. Only beta and gamma Herpesviruses have been tied to Atherosclerosis, and the relation of the alpha viruses to said issue is unknown. As such, the debate regarding the symbiotic nature of the Herpesvirus stretches from varying subtypes to active and latent infection.
1Listeria: Pathogens that cause Listeriosis, a serious foodborne illness.
2Asthmogenic: Resulting in asthma.
3Epstein-Barr Virus: a strain of the Herpesvirus family.
4Human Cytomegalovirus: a strain of the Herpesvirus family.
5Atherosclerosis: Extreme buildup of plaque within the blood vessels, often resulting in stroke.
6Atherogenesis: Plaque buildup within the blood vessels.
Class of 2024