February 25th, 2010
02:33 PM ET

When will we see a herpes cure?

As a feature of CNNhealth.com, our team of expert doctors will answer readers' questions. Here's a question for Dr. Gupta.

From Lloyd Bartley, Bowling Green, Kentucky

“How close are scientists to developing a cure for herpes, figuratively speaking will we be seeing a break through in 10, 20, or even 30 years?”


Well, Lloyd, there is good news and bad news on the herpes front. The good news: Researchers have made serious strides and now better understand the mechanism behind herpes outbreaks. The bad news: There is very little funding for that research.

After receiving your question we reached out to a leading herpes expert, Bryan Cullen, the director at the Center for Virology at Duke University. Cullen is hopeful that a cure for herpes could come within 10 years, once funding hurdles are crossed.

Nearly one in five people over age 12 in the U.S. is affected by herpes. It is caused by a virus - either the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Both strains can cause genital herpes, but HSV-1 usually infects the mouth and produces cold sores.

Despite funding challenges, Cullen and his team are inching closer to a cure. They conducted a study recently that identified the pathway herpes takes as it infects. They now know how herpes embeds itself into the cells and how it eludes treatment. Now that they have honed in on the physiology of the disease - and its triggers - researchers believe they are steps closer to creating drugs that could cure herpes.

While we wait for a cure, there are drugs out there that can at least suppress herpes. Three antiviral drugs: acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir are commonly recommended to quell outbreaks. A physician might recommend taking these drugs when an outbreak occurs to quiet symptoms; or taking them continuously to reduce the likelihood of an outbreak.

And of course the best way to avoid spreading herpes is to abstain from sex, but if you are sexually active, engage in safe-sex practices such as using condoms.

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Filed under: Expert Q&A • Sex • Virus

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.