Medicine: The Case Against Herpes

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One of man's more troublesome enemies is the family of herpes viruses. The 50 odd variants of the virus are responsible for a number of painful and occasionally dangerous conditions, including shingles, a form of encephalitis and an eruption of blisters in infants with eczema. Recently, however, medical researchers have been focusing their attention on herpes simplex, a type of the virus long known to be responsible for a relatively minor affliction, the cold sore. Their findings have provided both good and bad news. The good news: several promising methods have been developed to treat the sores. The bad: a variation of herpes simplex that produces genital infections may also be linked with cervical cancer.

The two types of herpes simplex generally attack different and sharply defined areas of the body. Doctors believe that nearly everybody carries the herpes simplex virus somewhere in his body, probably in nerve tissue. In most people this virus remains dormant. But in some it becomes active, usually during a cold or fever, after a sunburn or as a result of nervous tension. The result is usually cold sores or fever blisters, unpleasant but rarely harmful eruptions that often recur at the same place on the lips or below the nose.

Promiscuous. The variant virus, herpes simplex type II, usually attacks below the waist. It causes painful sores and swelling on the thighs, buttocks and genital areas. Unlike the basic herpes simplex, which strikes indiscriminately, type II appears to exercise moral judgment−tending to afflict primarily the sexually promiscuous. It is prevalent among teen-agers and young adults and among prostitutes, but is rare in children and in celibate women. In fact, according to Bernard Roizman, professor of microbiology at the University of Chicago, genital herpes is the second most common venereal disease in the U.S., trailing only gonorrhea. Roizman and others have found that the infection is common among those who come to clinics for treatment of other venereal diseases.

Unfortunately for the promiscuous, there is often no clinical evidence that a sexual partner is carrying the virus. Ysolina Centifanto, an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Florida College of Medicine, studied 263 men from a wide range of social and economic groups. Thirty-nine, none of whom had a history of active genital herpes, were found to carry the virus in their genitourinary tracts.

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