You are one of the oldest forms of life on this planet. Yet you are not truly alive. Instead you walk the shadow-world between life and non-life.
You are feared by all, Revered by none.
You infect all vertebrates and many invertebrates.
You are one of the driving forces in evolution. Your genes have been incorporated into our genes.
You are a wonder of engineering and adaptability.
You are ruthless in your primal drive to survive.
You are the life-long uninvited guest in my body.
You are a red-hot wonder when active. Yet will lie dormant for decades like a seed in the dessert waiting for an opportune moment.
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You need to hire a PR firm.
Although one of the least damaging viruses, milder even than its relatives the chicken-pox/shingles virus and the mono/chronic fatigue virus- Herpes is feared, scorned, reviled like almost no other disease in modern times. It’s a simple sexually-transmitted skin infection classified as a minor disease in dermatological textbooks. But it’s sexually transmitted and of course anything related to sex in this sexually conflicted society comes under the prevue of religious conservatives and those with unresolved sexual hang-ups.
Herpes isn’t one of the bad viruses that will kill it’s host. It is a virus that merely wishes to take up permanent residence in a host and remain dormant for long periods of time. Some studies suggest that up to 70% of those infected by herpes simplex do not have outbreaks that they can detect.
Herpes is a wonder of engineering. The debate in the scientific community about whether or not viruses are actually alive continues. Viruses lack the ability to survive and reproduce on their own. They are entirely dependant on having a host. The herpes virus is actually very similar to a computer virus in the way it behaves. Like a computer virus, herpes simplex penetrates into your hardware/body, re-programmes your operating system/dna to change the way your computer/body behaves and make billions of copies of itself. Viruses come close to fitting the definition of being alive but they stay on the boundary between life and ab-life. Viruses can grow in dead human cells and even have the ability to bring them back to life. Viruses can even stage their own resurrection. Even if you manage to destroy massive amount of a virus in your body, if there was more than one copy of the virus in any one cell, the virus can resurrect itself by playing Dr. Frankenstein, piecing together parts from more than one dead virus to create a new living whole virus.
The herpes virus like no other virus I know of has the ability to compel the host cell its has invaded to change it’s shape and turn itself into a tunnel to the next healthy cell so that herpes can move from cell to cell without exposing itself to your blood stream. This way your immune system has no chance of detecting and destroying it.
Just as impressive is the strategy the virus employs of only sending 50% of active virus during an outbreak to the surface of the skin. The other 50% of the activated virus it sends to infect uninfected cells. Thus it is never in danger of being wiped out of your body.
Viruses have been one of the key players in the evolution of humans and other animal life. When a virus has infected us in the past if it has any genes which are useful to our evolution those genes have been incorporated into our genome. When that same virus mutates, again if there are any useful new genes our bodies have in our evolutionary past incorporated those new genes into our dna. Since viruses mutate faster than we can they have had a profound influence on how we have evolved, as have bacteria. It can be argued that viruses have probably had more of an effect on our evolution than climate change or other changes in our environment since those changes will always happen much more slowly than the mutation of viruses and bacteria.
The word herpes comes from the Greek “to creep”. Herpes was certainly an issue even to the ancient Greeks. Herpes can indeed creep from cell to cell undetected by the immune system. Herpes can creep from one outbreak location to others. Herpes does indeed creep from an infected person to an uninfected person. Herpes has been around for 140 million years and will be around long after we’re gone from this planet. We still don’t know a great deal about the herpes simplex virus. I have no doubt that as we get to know this virus better and better it will become harder not to acknowledge it an engineering marvel, a great survivor and evolutionary instigator.