Joyner-Kersee supports efforts to create herpes vaccine

Thursday, July 10, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- Five-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee has a track record of educating about health issues.

One of the great athletes of the 20th century, Joyner-Kersee has been outspoken about her own struggle with asthma and worked to raise awareness about the importance of fitness and nutrition. On Wednesday, she joined researchers at Saint Louis University to lend support to their efforts to eradicate genital herpes.

"I didn't look at it from the point of view that it's genital herpes. I looked at it from the preventative standpoint," said Joyner-Kersee, 41, a native of East St. Louis, Ill. Joyner-Kersee said she thinks efforts to educate about the disease and to create a vaccine ultimately can improve women's health and help protect babies. Newborn infants can contract the disease if it is unknowingly transmitted by their mothers. Infected babies can become brain-damaged or even die.

Researchers at the school are leading a national study into a possible vaccine to prevent genital herpes in women. The study will involve 7,550 women at 17 sites around the country.

The vaccine would not cure herpes for those already infected but, if successful, it ultimately could be administered to women before they become sexually active and prevent them from contracting the disease, researchers said.

Doctors said they've been having difficulties recruiting women to take part in the study. The school wants to enroll 500 uninfected, healthy women between the ages of 18 and 30 in the clinical trial, but so far they've only been able to vaccinate about 30. Women cannot contract the disease from the vaccine itself, doctors at the school said.

Dr. Thomas Heineman, the study's principal investigator, thinks herpes isn't as familiar to people as many other illnesses. Researchers stressed that one in four adults in America have genital herpes, but many are unaware because they don't show symptoms. The vaccine would not protect men against contracting the disease.

The herpes virus produces small, painful, fluid-filled blisters on the skin and mucous membranes. The symptoms usually last one to two weeks. But the virus stays in the body after infection and may reactivate to cause new outbreaks.

Outbreaks may happen many times a year and sometimes occur following illness, physical or emotional stress, or exposure to sunlight or certain foods or medications.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 45 million American teenagers and adults are infected with the type 2 herpes virus, which is almost always spread during sexual contact. The other herpes simplex virus, type 1, is much more common and causes cold sores. However, it too can cause genital infections if spread through oral-genital contact.

Dr. Robert Belshe, director of the school's center for Vaccine Development and the study's national chairman, said barrier methods of contraception, like condoms, can provide some protection against the spread of genital herpes.

Researchers will know the results of the trial in about four years.

Joyner-Kersee dominated the heptathalon, a seven-event track and field competition. She sponsors programs in St. Louis and East St. Louis to help children and promote fitness and health. She said she'll record public service announcements to educate people about genital herpes.

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