The first day, Eli felt tingling sensations up his penis, circling his testicles and then surging down his legs. “I was thinking what the hell is this,” Eli says. The next day brought sensations of burning and stabbing. Bedridden for hours, he finally went to the bathroom to pee, but saw nothing visibly wrong. A quick Google search pointed him to one diagnosis: herpes.
Eli, sadly, is far from alone. The World Health Organization says almost half a billion people below the age of 50 suffer from Herpes Simplex Virus-2, the kind that afflicts the genitals. A whopping 3.7 billion people have Herpes Simplex Virus-1, the mostly oral kind. There are treatments, but so far no preventative solution. The quest for a herpes vaccine is “one of the biggest unsolved problems of infectious disease,” says William Halford, an associate professor at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.
I’d love the peace of mind to know my partners were not at risk of getting herpes.
But that may change. Halford is among a growing number of researchers questing for the herpes vaccine, both at medical schools and at biotech firms. All approach the vaccine differently, and if any of them are successful, they might just create the next human papillomavirus vaccine, which is now recommended for women below the age of 26.
These days, epidemiologists are pretty optimistic that all the itching and burning will someday soon be prevented: “I think we’ll see the vaccine in the next 5 to 10 years,” says Litjen Tan, a strategist at the Immunization Action Coalition. And that has people with herpes, like Ella Dawson, who has blogged about her disease for multiple outlets, thrilled: “I’d love the peace of mind to know my partners were not at risk of getting herpes,” she says.
If you’re surprised that the herpes vaccine is suddenly, um, sexy, well, you’re not alone. Overall vaccination research is on a “downward” trend, says Paul Offit, of the Vaccine Education Center at Philadelphia Children’s Hospital, even as biotech as a whole continues to grow. (IBIS research predicts a 50 percent rise in revenues, to $161 billion, by 2020.) What’s en vogue are CRISPR technology and cancer drugs.
Vaccines saw the height of their success in the mid-1900s with the approval of polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus immunizations, and now the field has whittled down to four major vaccine developers: GSK, Merck, Pfizer and Sanofi. By the ‘80s, thanks to popular reports that vaccines did more harm than good, the consumer base had shrunk for immunizations.