Preventing V.D. as Valentine’s Day Approaches

February 06, 2007

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, the world’s largest study of a vaccine to protect against genital herpes – a disease that infects approximately one of every four women and men in the nation – takes on special significance for Rochester-area women and their male companions.

Doctors and nurses are recruiting women in the Rochester area who don’t have genital herpes to help test a vaccine against the sexually transmitted disease. So far, 237 women locally have joined the study, making Rochester one of the lead sites nationally. But more female participants ages 18 to 30 are needed to effectively test the vaccine.

“Herpes is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases, and its frequency is increasing rapidly,” said Christine Hay, M.D., assistant professor of medicine and the leader of the study on the Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “There is no really effective treatment for this form of herpes, so clearly the word is prevention. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”

Currently there is no vaccine approved to prevent the virus, which is a cousin of the much more common herpes-1 virus that causes cold sores in the mouth. So doctors and nurses at 46 sites in the United States and Canada are seeking a total of 7,550 women to participate in the study, which is testing a vaccine that has helped protect women in previous tests. Rochester is the only community in Upstate New York taking part in the study.

Doctors estimate that about one in every four women in the nation has genital herpes, and they believe it’s just as common in men. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 million people are infected each year in the United States alone – that’s an average of more than 100 people each hour who will contract the lifelong infection through sexual activity.

While the disease can cause painful sores on the genitals, many people don’t know they have it because they’ve never had an outbreak or noticed symptoms. And while people with the disease often avoid sexual activity when they have sores, the disease can be transmitted to another person anytime, even when no sores are present.

If a woman’s infection is active when she gives birth, the virus can cause meningitis, retardation and a host of other health problems in the child.

“It’s important that we have a vaccine to prevent this disease, not only for young men and women, but also their children,” said Hay.

Hay’s colleagues in the Division of Infectious Diseases were among the researchers who helped develop the technology behind the vaccine for human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer. Young women in Rochester took part in an early study of that vaccine 10 years ago; last year the vaccine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prevent cervical cancer in women.

Women who participate in the herpes study, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, will receive three shots of the herpes vaccine, made by GlaxoSmithKline, or of a comparison vaccine. Participants will visit the vaccine unit once every three or four months for about two years.

Women from ages 18 to 30 who would like to learn more – or men who would like to propose the study to their companions – should call the vaccine unit at (585) 273-3990. Women who have genital herpes or who have had cold sores on the mouth are not eligible. Men are not part of the study because previous studies have shown that the vaccine does not work in men.

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