Will There Ever Be a Cure For Herpes?

... or an HIV vaccine?

Extracting liquid from vial with syringe
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Some of the most passionate emails I've received are those asking whether there will ever be a cure for herpes. Another common source of frustration is why there isn't an HIV vaccine when there is a vaccine for HPV. These e-mails often accuse me and other scientists of not trying or not caring. It's not true. It's just that science doesn't work that way. Many scientists have spent years working on herpes cures and HIV vaccines.

They just haven't yet been successful in developing them.

The Difference Between Developing an HPV Vaccine and an HIV Vaccine

HIV (the cause of AIDS) and HPV (the cause of genital warts, cervical cancer, throat cancer, and other genital cancers in men) are both STDs. That makes many people wonder why we have a vaccine for one of them but not the other. The answer -- they're very different viruses. Developing an effective vaccine is far more difficult than just identifying the pathogen that causes a disease and knowing how it spreads. It requires figuring out a way to get the immune system to react strongly enough against that pathogen to fight if off when someone is exposed. 

HPV was a good target for vaccination. Why? It had already been shown that many people's immune systems are capable of fighting off HPV infections on their own. Most people who become infected with HPV will clear the infection within a few years, with no help from a doctor or drugs.

This gave strong evidence that, in theory, a vaccine against HPV could be made to work. It did. After several years of research, doctors figured out which HPV proteins were effective at stimulating the immune system. They then used that knowledge to develop not one but three vaccines.

In contrast, the search for an HIV vaccine has been far longer and far less successful.

Scientists have spent many years, and many millions of dollars, trying to find a vaccine that will effectively prevent HIV. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that they will ever be able to do so. Unlike people with HPV, people with HIV do not generally fight off an infection on their own. This means that there's no proof that the body would be capable of getting rid of an HIV infection. That's true even if you could successfully stimulate the immune system to react against the virus with a vaccine.

It is extremely difficult to develop an effective vaccine. The stories people read in school about the development of the smallpox vaccine make it seem easy. However, science is rarely that straightforward. Scientists have been working towards developing a chlamydia vaccine for more than 50 years. We still don't have one. People didn't even know that HIV existed for most of that time. HIV-1 wasn't discovered until 1984.

Why Isn't There a Cure for Herpes?

The people who write me angry letters about the lack of a cure for herpes often seem to believe that a cure exists.

They're angry because they're convinced their doctors don't know about it or are hiding the cure from them. In part, this is likely due to a large number of fraudulent STD treatments, in particular, fake herpes cures, that are advertised on the internet. However, it also may partially be because we live in a society where herpes is so stigmatized that not even doctors want to talk about it. (And sometimes doctors have incorrect information.) 

However, the fear that there is a cure for herpes out there and people don't know about it is completely unfounded. Herpes is a huge problem. If someone developed a herpes cure they would probably win a Nobel prize. The real issue is that herpes behaves in a way that makes it very difficult to attempt a cure. It is possible to prevent outbreaks with suppressive therapy or reduce the pain of an outbreak with conventional or alternative treatments. But developing treatments is very different than knocking the virus entirely out of a person's body.

When herpes infections aren't active, the virus hides out in the cells of the nervous system. That's a place where drugs cannot find it to get rid of it. To cure herpes, as opposed to simply treat it, scientists need to find a way to get all of the hidden viri out into the open where it can be removed. There has been some progress on this front in recent years. Unfortunately, the research is still in its early days. That's not to say that people shouldn't have hope. It's just that even in the very best of circumstances, it takes years to go from an in vitro solution that works in the lab to a safe and effective drug that works in the human body. Furthermore, not all treatments that work in the lab work equally well, or at all, in people. That means that even an extremely promising early article is not a guarantee of a future cure.

Science is a Process

Drug and vaccine development are long, difficult processes. They involve many years of work, and many wrong turns, with no guarantee of success. In no way does the lack of a herpes cure or an HIV vaccine mean that doctors and scientists don't want to find them. Many scientists are working incredibly hard trying to do just that.

Although if you have HIV or herpes, it may sometimes seem like researchers don't understand or care about what you're going through, it's not true. Everyone working in the field recognizes that these and other sexually transmitted diseases are a major source of physical and emotional distress. People are constantly looking for new ways to treat these diseases and also stop their spread.

It may seem difficult to believe when you don't understand why there isn't a cure for your infection right now. However, there are doctors and scientists who are dedicating their lives to looking for one. We just need to keep funding their research and hope that one day that they succeed. There may one day be a cure for herpes and a vaccine for HIV. But, as of now, it is a question of both if and when. 


Genital Herpes research. http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/genitalherpes/research/Pages/research.aspx.

NIH statement on HIV vaccine awareness day. http://www.niaid.nih.gov/news/newsreleases/2016/Pages/HVAD2016.aspx.

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