The Truth About the Genital Herpes Vaccine

It's highly contagious, extremely common, and doesn't have a cure--or even a vaccine to prevent it. But one day, herpes simplex viruses type 1 and type 2 may be preventable with a vaccine.

Certainly, a vaccine could help millions. About 16.2 percent, or one in six, people in the U.S. ages 14 to 49 are infected with herpes simplex type 2 (HSV-2), estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Now, reports Science Daily, an investigational vaccine has been shown to protect some women against herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), which typically causes sores in the mouth and on the lips--and, increasingly, in the genital area. However, the vaccine didn't protect women from HSV-2, the form of the virus that's responsible for blisters and lesions in the genital area. There were 58 percent fewer cases of HSV-1 in women who had gotten the vaccine as compared to the women who got the control vaccine.

"There is some very good news in our findings," lead study author Robert Belshe, MD, director of the Saint Louis University Center for Vaccine Development, said, according to Science Daily. The randomized study involved 8,323 women from age 18 to 30, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. What he found surprising, Belshe said, according to Science Daily, is that the vaccine protected against one type of herpes simplex virus but not the other. In recent years, HSV-1 has become a more common cause of genital disease as more couples have oral sex. Even when an infected person is asymptomatic, he can spread the herpes simplex from mouth to mouth, genitals to genitals, or mouth to genitals. 

Bruce Hirsch, MD, attending physician in infectious diseases at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, NY, called the study "interesting and really disappointing."

"It was ineffective for herpes simplex virus 2 and there was a modest benefit for herpes simplex 1," Hirsch said. "Herpes simplex 2 is the one that is associated with more health problems and suffering."

The herpes simplex viruses are very contagious, explains Mimi Secor, FNP, a specialist in women's health and a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP).

"Most patients who are communicable and could transmit this infection do so when they have no symptoms," Secor says. What typically happens, she says, is that patients believe from their symptoms they have a yeast infection when in fact it's actually herpes simplex virus type 2. When they are treated for a yeast infection and get better, they assume it was a yeast infection. But the symptoms for herpes last for about a week, too. Meanwhile, these individuals can be infecting others with herpes.

Protect Yourself

In order to effectively protect yourself against genital herpes, or any sexually transmitted disease, follow these tips:

  • Be in a monogamous, long-term relationship with a partner who is known to not be infected.
  • Correct, and consistent, use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of herpes, but it is still possible for the disease to occur even when using a condom, reports the CDC.
  • If you have herpes, don't have sex with an uninfected partner when you have lesions or other symptoms of the disease.


"Progress made toward a genital herpes vaccine." 4 January 2012.

Belshe, Robert et al. "The Efficacy Results of a Trial of a Herpes Simplex Vaccine," New England Journal of Medicine. 5 January 2012.

"Genital herpes - CDC fact sheet." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.