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Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Viruses More Difficult To Treat

There are no cures for the sexually transmitted diseases caused by viruses: AIDS, genital herpes, viral hepatitis, and genital warts. Treatment is available for most of these diseases, but the virus cannot be eliminated from the body.

AIDS is the most life-threatening sexually transmitted disease, a disease which is usually fatal and for which there is no cure. The disease is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a virus which disables the immune system, making the body susceptible to injury or death from infection and certain cancers. HIV is a retrovirus which translates the RNA contained in the virus into DNA, the genetic information code contained in the human body. This DNA becomes a part of the human host cell. The fact that viruses become part of the human body makes them difficult to treat or eliminate without harming the patient.

AIDS can remain dormant for years within the human body. More than 200,000 cases of AIDS have been reported in the United States since the disease was first identified in 1981, and at least one million other Americans are believed to be infected with the HIV virus. Initial symptoms of AIDS include fever, headache, or enlarged lymph nodes. Later symptoms include energy loss, frequent fever, weight loss, or frequent yeast infections. HIV is transmitted most commonly through sexual contact or through use of contaminated needles or blood products. The disease is not spread through casual contact, such as the sharing of towels, bedding, swimming pools, or toilet seats.

Genital herpes is a widespread, recurrent, and incurable viral infection. About 500,000 new cases are reported in the United States annually. The prevalence of herpes infection reflects the highly contagious nature of the virus. About 75% of the sexual partners of individuals with the infection develop genital herpes.

The herpes virus is common. Most individuals who are exposed to one of the two types of herpes simplex virus never develop any symptoms. In these cases, the herpes virus remains in certain nerve cells of the body, but does not cause any problems. Herpes simplex virus type 1 most frequently causes cold sores on the lips or mouth, but can also cause genital infections. Herpes simplex virus type 2 most commonly causes genital sores, though mouth sores can also occur due to this type of virus.

In genital herpes, the virus enters the skin or mucous membrane, travels to a group of nerves at the end of the spinal cord, and initiates a host of painful symptoms within about one week of exposure. These symptoms may include vaginal discharge, pain in the legs, and an itching or burning feeling. A few days later, sores appear at the infected area. Beginning as small red bumps, they can become open sores which eventually become crusted. These sores are typically painful and last an average of two weeks.

Following the initial outbreak, the virus waits in the nerve cells in an inactive state. A recurrence is created when the virus moves through the nervous system to the skin. There may be new sores or simply a shedding of virus which can infect a sexual partner. The number of times herpes recurs varies from individual to individual, ranging from several times a year to only once or twice in a lifetime. Occurrences of genital herpes may be shortened through use of an antiviral drug which limits the herpes virus's ability to reproduce itself.

Genital herpes is most dangerous to newborns born to pregnant women experiencing their first episode of the disease. Direct newborn contact with the virus increases the risk of neurological damage or death. To avoid exposure, physicians usually deliver babies using cesarean section if herpes lesions are present.

Hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver, is a complicated illness with many types. Millions of Americans develop hepatitis annually. The hepatitis A virus, one of four types of viral hepatitis, is most often spread by contamination of food or water. The hepatitis B virus is most often spread through sexual contact, through the sharing of intravenous drug needles, and from mother to child. Hospital workers who are exposed to blood and blood products are also at risk. Hepatitis C and Hepatitis D (less commonly) may also be spread through sexual contact.

A yellowing of the skin, or jaundice, is the best known symptom of hepatitis. Other symptoms include dark and foamy urine and abdominal pain. There is no cure for hepatitis, although prolonged rest usually enables individuals with the disease to recover completely.

Many people who develop hepatitis B become carriers of the virus for life. This means they can infect others and face a high risk of developing liver disease. There are as many as 300 million carriers worldwide, and about 1.5 million in the United States. A vaccination is available against hepatitis B.

The link between human papillomavirus, genital warts, and certain types of cancer has drawn attention to the potential risk of genital warts. Studies completed by 2003 indicated that women with a history of some STDs may be at increased risk for cervical cancer. There are more than 60 types of human papillomavirus. Many of these types can cause genital warts. In the United States, about one million new cases of genital warts are diagnosed every year.

Genital warts are very contagious, and about twothirds of the individuals who have sexual contact with someone with genital warts develop the disease. There is also an association between human papillomavirus and cancer of the cervix, anus, penis, and vulva. This means that people who develop genital warts appear to be at a higher risk for these cancers and should have their health carefully watched. Contact with genital warts can also damage infants born to mothers with the problem.

Genital warts usually appear within three months of sexual contact. The warts can be removed in various ways, but the virus remains in the body. Once the warts are removed the chances of transmitting the disease are reduced.

Many questions persist concerning the control of sexually transmitted diseases. Experts have struggled for years with efforts to inform people about transmission and treatment of sexually transmitted disease. Frustration over the continuing increase in sexually transmitted disease is one factor which has fueled interest in potential vaccines against certain sexually transmitted diseases.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Semiotics to SmeltingSexually Transmitted Diseases - The Great Imitator, Effective Treatment Developed, Continuing Challenge, From Chlamydia To Aids, Viruses More Difficult To Treat