Herpes could help flu vaccine

by Jessie Bekker

About half of the United States adult population has herpes.
Not to be confused with cold sores or sexually transmitted herpes, a strain of the virus called cytomegalovirus could be what’s keeping people in their 20s and 30s safe from the flu virus, according to research from Stanford University. Researchers found that the virus boosts the immune system’s response to the flu. Now, they’re exploring the virus’s potential to protect against the flu.
This specific strain of herpes is transmitted through bodily fluids and causes the immune system to create antibodies that help fend off other viruses like the flu, said David Furman, a researcher at Stanford’s Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection and the study’s lead.
But the virus only helps young people’s immune systems repel the flu. The virus has the opposite effect in older populations, those with weakened immune systems and pregnant women, Furman said.
Researchers also found the strain of herpes could cause serious birth defects in fetuses.
Though the virus isn’t new, medical researchers are only now exploring its potential in disease prevention.
“[Cytomegalovirus] is as old as humanity; we’ve been coevolving with cytomegalovirus as long as the human race has existed,” said Dr. Mark Schleiss, a pediatric infectious disease professor at the University of Minnesota’s Medical School.
He said although the study suggests there are long-term benefits to retaining the virus, it should also be considered in tandem with its associated costs.
“Even though these observations are interesting and provide some scientific info about cytomegalovirus … we can’t embrace it either.” Schleiss said. “We have to weigh that benefit against real distress.”
His research team studies the virus in hopes of finding a risk-free strain.
“It’s a fascinating situation because we thought we needed to eradicate this, and lo and behold, it actually does do us some good in some circumstances,” he said
“There’s a yin and a yang there.”
Benefits of the virus suggest it could be used in conjunction with the current flu vaccine to boost immune response to influenza, Furman said.
Vaccination rates among Minnesotans fell this year, said Jennifer Heath, a Minnesota Department of Health immunization outreach nurse specialist.
And this past season’s flu vaccine was also poorly matched to the circulating flu virus, she said. The vaccine’s overall effectiveness in fighting off the flu was 19 percent this year, lower than last year’s average of 51 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A statement from Boynton Health Service said about 21,000 students and faculty got a flu shot from Boynton this year, which is about the same number as last year.
Finding a better solution to the flu virus is a high priority, Schleiss said, as the strain changes each year.
Health officials hope to modify the current vaccine by targeting different aspects of the flu virus and finding a method to make flu immunity last for more than a year, he said.
If the herpes virus were used with a vaccine, researchers say it could help young immune systems avoid various strains of the flu.
Although there is a need for a better flu vaccine, Heath said, the herpes strain would have to be tested on a larger population before it could be used with current methods of flu protection.
“Hopefully, in the future, we’re going to see larger studies and there will be even more information,” she said.