Is There a Herpes Vaccine?
Can you rely on vaccination to prevent infection?
There is currently no vaccine available for herpes
There are several possible herpes vaccines being researched and developed
There are things you can do to reduce the chance of herpes infections being passed on
You can get treatment for herpes if you get an outbreak
There are other STIs you can be vaccinated against
Can you get vaccinated against herpes?
There is currently no vaccine available to prevent or cure herpes – but there is ongoing research which shows some promising results.
You can't cure herpes or get immunity to it – it is difficult to find a cure as the herpes virus activates at different times in your body. People do not spontaneously cure themselves of herpes and there isn’t a way of becoming immune to it. Some strains are more persistent than others and hide deep in your nerve cells, making it difficult to find a vaccine to cure it without risking damage to your nerves.
Herpes can bypass your immune system – the herpes virus is clever in that it contains protein molecules that allow it to escape from the antibodies in your immune system. This allows it to hide and multiply.
Are there new herpes vaccines being developed?
There are some new vaccines, which are currently being developed – these vaccines are undergoing different stages of clinical trials to assess how effective and safe they are. These include:
- VCL – Hb01
- GEN – 003
A vaccine gets developed in two main stages:
- Pre-clinical development – this stage is carried out in labs and the vaccine is tested on animals
- Clinical development – the vaccine is first tested on humans. This stage lasts for several years and covers various other stages of testing the vaccine for how effective and safe it is
There is a vaccine for the strain of herpes that causes shingles – there is a vaccination called Zostavax which protects against shingles. Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster vaccine. This is sometimes also referred to as herpes-zoster, but it is not the same virus that causes cold sores (oral herpes) or genital herpes.
There are also cures being researched – gene editing is one technique used to develop a potential cure for herpes. This technique introduces a human made enzyme that cuts away a certain part of the DNA in the herpes virus to prevent it from multiplying inside your body.
Gene editing is an exciting and innovative research method. It is currently not designed to prevent you getting herpes but may be more effective at treating it. Vaccines would probably be better designed in preventing herpes.
How can you prevent herpes?
It's hard to prevent catching herpes but there are ways of avoiding passing herpes on when someone has it.
How can you prevent passing on herpes to other people? – an outbreak of oral herpes (cold sores) can be managed with the following preventative steps:
- Avoid direct physical contact with people
- Avoid sharing items that can pass the virus on such as cups, cutlery, make up or lip balm. You can still use communal facilities such as showers, toilets or swimming pools
- Don’t participate in oral sex or kissing
- Wash your hands with soap and water thoroughly after applying antiviral cream or after touching the sore – avoid touching the sore unless you need to apply treatment
The following preventative steps will reduce genital herpes being passed between partners:
- Genital herpes can be managed by not having sex during an outbreak of genital herpes or during the initial signs of an outbreak
- Use a condom if you have been diagnosed with herpes but have no symptoms – the virus can still be passed on from direct skin contact to your partner despite the use of a condom
- Do not allow anyone to come into direct contact with your sores or blisters
- If you use sex toys, wash them thoroughly and put a condom on them
Knowing if you have an increased risk of getting herpes – certain risk factors can increase your risk of getting herpes such as:
- HIV infection or another medical condition that weakens your immune system, such as cancer or diabetes
- Multiple or frequent changes in your sexual partners
- Having sexual contact with a partner who has genital herpes
- History of sexually transmitted infections (STI’s)
- Incorrect use of condoms – herpes can be passed on from the genital area not covered by a condom
Preventing outbreaks – you may need to consider suppression treatment if you experience many outbreaks in a year. If you suffer six or more outbreaks a year, then you may wish to consider suppression therapy to prevent future herpes outbreaks. This involves taking antiviral medicine daily for several months to stop recurrences. Your doctor will advise you on when to stop to see if the infection returns and when treatment needs to repeated if necessary.
What happens if I get herpes?
Getting tested - you can only be tested for herpes while you have ulcers/blisters. The ulcers/blisters may take up to 10 days or more to appear. You can use a home test kit to find out if you have herpes. Or you could see your GP or visit a sexual health clinic.
Getting treatment – it is important to seek treatment for herpes as soon as possible. Oral or genital herpes is most contagious during an outbreak. Treatment should ideally be started within the first 24 hours, and at least within the first five days of the infection appearing for it to be most effective. You can take antiviral medicine for an acute infection, this is sometimes also called episodic treatment. Herpes medication includes:
How often do you need treatment? – a herpes infection always lies between a dormant phase, where it hibernates silently in your nerve cells and an ‘activating’ phase. When the virus is active it is called an outbreak, which causes noticeable symptoms. An outbreak will depend on how the virus is activated in your body. A course of treatment can also be prescribed on assessment from your doctor for certain times such as your honeymoon or during exams.
How will the herpes infection affect me? – this varies from person to person. Some people get several outbreaks in a year and some have no outbreaks until many years after they are first infected. You can recover from a herpes outbreak but it cannot be cured.
Avoiding triggers – there are some possible triggers, which you can avoid to help control your herpes. These include:
- Weak immune system
- In women, menstrual periods
If you notice a pattern of trigger factors, then try to adjust your lifestyle or reduce your exposure to them.
What STIs can you get vaccinated against?
You can get vaccinated to protect yourself from the following STIs:
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- HPV (Human Papilloma Virus)
Why vaccinate against these conditions? – hepatitis A and B are viral infections that can damage your liver. Hepatitis A can also be spread from contaminated food or water. HPV can cause genital warts in both sexes, anal or penile cancer in men and cervical cancer in women. HPV belongs to a large family of viruses of which only some are sexually transmitted.
Booking vaccinations online – you can get advice and book a vaccination using online health clinics services, such as Superdrug Health Clinics.
Vaccines aren't available for all STIs – vaccines are designed to protect you from viruses but some common STIs such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, or syphilis are caused by bacteria. These are treated effectively with antibiotics. It is always important to practice safe sex as you cannot protect yourself from all STIs by getting vaccinated.
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Little, B. (2018). Can we gene-edit herpes away? smithsonian.com. [online] Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/can-we-gene-edit-herpes-away-180968551/ [accessed 27th July 2018].
Whitley, R.J. and Roizman, B. (2002). Herpes simplex viruses: is a vaccine tenable? J Clin Invest; 110(2): 145-151.