Why Haven’t We Developed a Genital Herpes Vaccine Yet?

The fact that a large proportion of the world’s population is living with genital herpes turns that condition into one of the most common STDs. According to 2020 World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, 491.5 million people across the globe are infected with the virus.

Historic evidence suggests that the virus has been around for many millennia. In 1967, scientists distinguished the HSV-1 and HSV-2 viruses from each other for the very first time. That’s also when the term genital herpes came into existence.

Unfortunately, the scientific community hasn’t managed to combat the virus and a vaccine isn’t available yet. Why has this happened? Apparently, the virus causing the genital herpes infection is much more evasive and complex than most other viruses that lead to infections in humans. These are the main reasons why vaccine development progress has been relatively slow.

Lots of Efforts, No Results Yet

Many pharmaceutical companies have worked on the development of a herpes vaccine through the years. None of these endeavours have established themselves as effective yet.

In 2018, three large companies attempted to come up with a herpes vaccine. Their developments, however, didn’t deliver the desired efficacy and the research programs got abandoned.

We already have excellent vaccines for many common types of viruses. What makes the herpes virus different and so difficult to tackle?

The first difference between HSV-2 and other viruses is that its structure (DNA) is much more complex. In addition, the virus is a “sneaky” attacker. It has a mechanism of evading the immune system’s response, which means that the intruder can remain undetected for fairly long periods of time. In some instances, the HSV-2 virus has remained dormant for years before eventually activating itself and causing symptoms.

Hence, both the physiology of the virus and its behaviour make the development of a vaccine that works really difficult. Vaccines work by providing the immune system with the ammunition required to attack and kill a pathogen upon its entry in the body. If the immune system cannot detect HSV-2, however, it wouldn’t stand a chance. In this sense, genital herpes is somewhat similar to cancer – a condition that can develop and spread undetected for fairly long periods of time.

Are We Getting Closer to a Herpes Vaccine?

Regardless of the challenges, it’s not all bad news.

In fact, research is ongoing and many different vaccine development methodologies have been tested through the years. Originally, medication developers attempted to develop products that featured some of the proteins that make up the HSV virus. While safe, these vaccines had limited effectiveness.

Other experiments based vaccines on weakened versions of the virus that were less capable of replicating themselves. While such vaccines had higher effectiveness, their use was not considered 100 per cent safe. Complications could occur if the weakened virus entered the nervous system, hence the methodology was more or less abandoned.

Work is ongoing and medical developers are constantly refining their approach.

In 2020, University of Nebraska-Lincoln published the results of its research on a vaccine candidate.

The researchers worked with a genetically-modified version of the virus. Through the modification, they attempted to keep the virus from “hiding” within the nervous system in an attempt to evade the immune response.  When animals were injected with the vaccine, their bodies produced significant amounts of antibodies to limit viral replication and viral shedding significantly.

Obviously, an animal study is a long way from the approval of a safe, working vaccine for human use. The good news is that technology could potentially allow pharmaceutical researchers and developers to overcome the difficulties that make HSV-2 impossible to tackle right now.

Handling Genital Herpes Right Now

The vast majority of people carry the HSV-1 or HSV-2 virus. If you’re infected, you shouldn’t get worried about the condition. While genital herpes can lead to some complications in rare situations, it’s mostly manageable.

Anyone who has genital herpes symptoms could be prescribed antiviral medications by their Singapore physicians. The aim of such therapies is to strengthen the body’s response to the virus and make it dormant once again (since a cure for genital herpes is non-existent, as well).

Managing symptoms on your own includes a number of steps. Keep the affected area clean and apply a painkiller cream upon necessity. Using ice packs can also help for the reduction of discomfort. Always wash your hands before and after treating your genital area to reduce the risk of viral spreading.

In time, outbreaks will become less severe and they may disappear altogether. Do remember the fact that most people who have genital herpes will never experience sores or any other issue pertaining to a viral flare-up.

Keeping your body healthy and your immune system strong are two of the most important steps for the prevention of flare-ups. If you know that you have genital herpes, it’s also crucial to talk to your partner about it and share that information.

Hopefully, researchers will develop both vaccines and cures for genital herpes in time. Right now, safe sexual practices and personal responsibility happen to be most important.

Don’t hesitate to educate yourself about genital herpes and what this education entails. Shim Clinic is a STD clinic in Singapore that can help you understand the most important facts about the condition. You can visit us during working hours every day of the week to have your questions answered, get tested or improve your sexual health practices.