60-Second Science

Positive Side of Herpes Infection

Latent herpes virus infections may keep the immune system on alert, and thus better able to deal with other infectious agents.

You don’t hear a lot of positive news about herpes.  But a new study in the May 17th issue of the journal Nature shows that in some cases a herpes virus infection might actually be really good for you.  Individual mice with chronic herpes virus infections were better able to ward off some deadly bacteria, including the one that causes plague and another that causes food poisoning.

There are many kinds of herpes viruses, not just genital herpes.  Other herpes viruses include chickenpox, cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr and some lesser known viruses that actually permanently infect most humans without ever producing any significant symptoms.  The researchers think that the key is constant presence of a latent herpes virus infection, in which the virus is always present but is not really causing problems most of the time.  Nevertheless, the immune system reacts to the virus and is somehow more able to take on any additional threats.  Some herpes infections are certainly major problems themselves.  But the new finding shows that we still have much to learn about the impacts of the other life forms we carry.

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