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Eight members infect humans and cause a range of illnesses including glandular fever, chickenpox, shingles and, of course, herpes itself.
According to the ‘hygeine hypothesis‘, infections during childhood prime the immune system against future threats.When people say that every cloud has a silver lining, they probably aren’t thinking about herpes at the time.Herpes may be unpleasant, but the viruses that cause it and related diseases could have a bright side.The viruses work their magic by putting the immune system on high alert.The effect is similar to a raising of the terror alert creating a heightened level of security where the body is prepared to fight off any further threats.And in mice latently infected by herpesviruses, they are activated in bulk.
This sequence is similar to the way the immune system normally protects us against multiple bacterial invaders.
In extreme cases, latent viruses can lead to chronic inflammation, which in turn can cause autoimmune diseases, or some types of cancer. Erik Barton and colleagues from Washington University Medical School found that once infected mice entered the latent stage, they were surprisingly resistant to certain types of bacteria.
Unlike their vulnerable uninfected peers, they even managed to ward off the deadly plague bug, Yersinia pestis.
At least in mice, latent herpesviruses turn out to be paying tenants rather than free-loading squatters – bacterial resistance is their rent.
The latent stage is crucial to the resistance effect, and Barton found that a mutant herpesvirus that infects but doesn’t set up shop provides no benefits to its host.
The viruses trigger the release of high levels of immune system chemicals called cytokines.