Promising New Study Attempts to Perfect a Genital Herpes Vaccine

Researchers at the HerpeVac Trial for Women are in the midst of testing an influential new medicine.

On June 9, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first effective vaccine against Human Papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted infection that is one of the major causes of cervical cancer. On the heels of this approval, which represents a crucial breakthrough in the efforts of scientists, doctors and public health officials to combat the spread of STD’s in the United States and elsewhere, the Medical College of Georgia announced today that significant strides have been made towards the development of another STD vaccine, which will protect against genital herpes.

There is a pressing need to develop an effective protection against this disease. Genital herpes affects one out of every four American women and one out of every five American men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although it is not life-threatening in adults, it is particularly dangerous to babies; transmission of the virus from the mother to the child during pregnancy or childbearing can lead to severe medical problems. Despite the increasing quality of the drugs used to treat the symptoms of the virus, there is still no cure. Unfortunately, because the genital herpes virus can be transmitted by people who are not experiencing an outbreak of the disease’s symptoms, the effectiveness of modern antiviral drugs has little effect on the transmission of the disease. This problem, compounded with the fact that more than 80% of people infected with herpes are unaware they have it, makes the spread of genital herpes very difficult to control. Medical researchers have therefore been searching for a vaccine against the condition for some time, without success. This, however, might soon change. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline are working together to develop a vaccine for genital herpes. They are co-sponsoring the Herpevac Trial for Women, the second in a series of studies conducted to test the effectiveness of an experimental vaccine, that they hope will eventually protect people from genital herpes.

The Herpevac study is being conducted at more than 40 sites in the United States and Canada, with the participation of over 7,000 women. The trial is limited to females because a previous study, published in 2002, revealed that the vaccine being tested has no effect on men. Selection of test subjects is further limited by the fact that the vaccine, at least for now, cannot protect people infected with a close genetic relative of genital herpes: Herpes Simplex Virus Type-1, which causes common cold sores and afflicts nearly two-thirds of the population. If they meet these criteria, test subjects will receive either the herpes vaccine or a hepatitis A vaccine (as a control). Participants will receive three doses of either vaccine within the first six months of the trial and will be followed for a total of 20 months. To test the vaccine’s effectiveness, researchers intend to rely on the widespread nature of genital herpes. The results of the 2002 study depended on finding test subjects who were in a regular sexual relationship with someone infected with genital herpes; in the Herpevac Trial, this is no longer the case. Instead, the administrators of the study will compare the rates of new herpes cases among the two different groups of test subjects over the course of the trial’s 20 months. Hopefully, after thorough statistical analysis, the higher rate of infection among those who were injected with the Hepatitis A vaccine will prove that the Herpevac vaccine is an effective protection against such a common and traumatic disease.

For more information, or to participate in the Herpevac trial, visit the HerpeVac Trial's website.

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