Dubbed the “hidden epidemic,” genital herpes is a condition many people contract but few want to discuss.
It is estimated that one in five adults will contract genital herpes in their lifetime. Although preventible through conventional safe sex methods, the number of reported diagnosed cases of genital herpes is on the rise.
To date there is no medical cure for genital herpes, but Dr. Tim Shacker, a disease specialist at the University, hopes a new topical therapy currently in clinical trials will curb its unpleasant effects.
“I may as well have a Diet Coke. It’s useless,” Shacker said of the current treatment for genital herpes, which requires sufferers to wait until an outbreak begins to start treatment. Because genital herpes sufferers have to see their doctor before they can get treatment for an episode, by the time they receive treatment, occurrence is almost over.
Shacker is one of six researchers nationwide investigating the use of a cream to treat genital herpes.
The new cream is an immune response modifier, meaning it boosts the body’s immune response to the virus that causes genital herpes, said Johanna Askegard, a researcher with AXIS, the University program that studies sexually transmitted diseases. The new treatment is designed to reduce the number of outbreaks herpes sufferers experience.
The cream, Imiquimod, is currently used to treat genital warts, but Shacker hopes the solution will stimulate the body’s immune system to fend off occurrences of genital herpes inflammation and cease its spread.
The current treatment for genital herpes is an anti-viral medication, such as Valtrex, administered in pill form. This treatment is used to suppress the virus when an outbreak is anticipated, said Chuck Sieber, a study coordinator for AXIS programs. But Shacker argues that the current episodic therapy is too little, too late.
Herpes sufferers usually experience an itching or burning sensation in affected areas during an outbreak. A red base the size of a pencil eraser covered with water blisters forms. The blisters pop and ulcers form and crust over. The entire process takes from three to five days.
Shacker hopes the cream treatment will suppress the number of occurrences a herpes sufferer experiences each year.
“In the era of safe sex, the prevalence of herpes in the U.S. has increased 32 percent — you can still play but you have to play safe,” Shacker said.
Genital herpes is easily spread because carriers often do not know they have it. People can contract herpes genitally, but symptoms appear rectally.
“Who checks that area of their body every day? Nobody,” Shacker said.
Herpes is an increasingly dangerous epidemic because it facilitates the spread of other more potent STDs such as HIV.
“When you have a population with a high prevalence of herpes cases, your rate of HIV cases increases,” Shacker said. He added that five out of six black women and three out of five black men are likely to contract herpes in their lifetime. Shacker said HIV is spreading rampantly in the black population partially because of the number of diagnosed genital herpes cases.
Shacker and AXIS are looking for patients to participate in clinical trials to chart the effectiveness of the cream. They are also looking for heterosexual couples to participate in a separate study surveying how herpes is spread.