Existing drug might aid mono patients

More than 900 University students reported having mono last year.

When theater junior Kate Gunther went to see the doctor for a sore throat this summer, she got a bit of a surprise: She didn’t have strep throat, she had mononucleosis.

Mono, also known as the kissing disease, has symptoms that can include fever, severe sore throat and swollen lymph nodes and usually lasts three to four weeks.

Without a cure, Gunther and students like her can’t get much help when diagnosed with mono, but continuing research by Dr. Hank Balfour might change that.

Earlier this year, Balfour, medical director of the University’s Fairview Clinical Virology Laboratory, finished a study that dealt with the effectiveness of anti-viral drug Valacyclovir on the Epstein-Barr virus, the cause of mono.

“The kids that got Valacyclovir basically got better, faster,” he said.

Balfour is now finishing the follow-up to that study to fine-tune the results.

“It’s a variation on the same theme,” he said. “We don’t expect to find anything new in terms of treatment effect; we’re trying to find how the drug works.”

In the first round, 20 students participated, with 10 receiving Valacyclovir for two weeks. In the latest round, all seven participants received the drug for one week.

Balfour and his researchers are trying to learn exactly how much of the drug is necessary to effectively treat the virus.

“Instead of giving two weeks of drug, we’re giving one week at the same dosage,” Balfour said.

Balfour has volunteers come to his lab for 12-hour periods, where their blood is checked for virus levels.

When diagnosed, people with mono typically are sick for 10 days to three weeks, Balfour said.

The fatigue that follows, according to Gunther, is the worst.

“You don’t feel like you’re capable of doing anything,” she said. “You feel really confined. It was like the worst cold I ever had.”

Gunther said it would have been hard to do schoolwork had it not happened over the summer.

“I took a week off of everything, because I could literally not function,” she said.

Last year, more than 900 students reported having had mono within the previous year. Dave Golden, public health and marketing director for Boynton Health Service, said he believes the real number of cases is much higher.

He said most of the time students have no idea what they have.

“It’s not unusual for a student to come in thinking they have strep throat, and when they test negative and symptoms persist, they come back and find they have mono,” he said.

Golden said he suspects many cases simply aren’t diagnosed.

Gunther said she originally didn’t think she had mono.

“When I first started getting mono, I had a sore throat, a cough and my nose was running. I thought at first it was tonsillitis,” Gunther said. “It never struck me that I had mono.”

As for Valacyclovir, it may be some time before it’s widely prescribed.

“We’ve only tested a very small number of patients,” Balfour said. “That’s really probably not enough.”