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Media lies about herpes … as usual!

You may have seen articles in newspapers/online about ‘herpes in astronauts’. If you haven’t, don’t bother to search – they are uniformly misleading. Not just in Metro which you might expect, but even the Independent got it wrong. As we have written before, journalists only know about one type of herpes and assume the scientists are writing about genital herpes, whether they are or not!

Key Points:

As you might expect, any condition that reactivates when a body is under stress is likely to show up in astronauts. Now, after 60 years of men-in-space, scientists decided to measure the amounts of 4 different herpes viruses in saliva and urine. In about half the astronauts, they found shingles and two kinds of glandular fever present during space flight. In conclusion, it is useful for the astronauts to know that they should not kiss vulnerable people when they land, as the glandular fever-like viruses will continue to be present in saliva for up to a month after a long flight.

What the Frontiers in Microbiology, Feb 2019, reported:

“Currently, 47 out of the 89 (53%) astronauts from shuttle-flights and 14 out of 23 (61%) astronauts from ISS [longer] missions shed one or more herpes viruses in saliva/urine samples.”

There are 8 herpes viruses that humans may have, including chickenpox/ shingles (VZV) and several glandular fever-like illnesses EBV and CMV.

It continues: “Astronauts shed Epstein–Barr virus (EBV), varicella-zoster virus (VZV), and herpes-simplex-1 (HSV-1) in saliva and cytomegalovirus (CMV) in urine. Larger quantities and increased frequencies for these viruses were found during space flight as compared to before or after flight samples and their matched healthy controls.”

“The shedding … increased in frequency and amplitude [during longer flights]. VZV shedding increased from 41% in space shuttle to 65% in ISS missions, EBV increased 82 to 96%, and CMV increased 47 to 61%.”

NOTE THAT there is no mention of HSV-2 or genital herpes at all!

And no mention of any illness. But METRO’s headline was, ”Astronauts are suffering hideous herpes outbreaks up in space, Nasa reveals”

The section that is interpreted as in the Independent as: “NASA issues warning over herpes in space after virus reactivates in astronauts” comes from the warning that:

“In addition, VZV and CMV shed up to 30 days after [a long flight] in contrast to shuttle [flights] where VZV and CMV shed up to 5 and 3 days after flight respectively.

“Continued shedding of infectious-virus post-flight may pose a potential risk for crew who may encounter new born infants, seronegative adults or any immunocompromised individuals on Earth. Therefore, developing spaceflight countermeasures to prevent viral reactivation is essential.”

One mention of herpes simplex:

In fact, at the end of the scientific report there is a comment that herpes simplex virus type 1 recurrences are very low with only 8% of saliva samples testing positive for viral DNA, though one astronaut suffering persistent dermatitis during a spaceflight that was longer than 180 days, was positive for HSV-1 viral DNA in saliva and lesion samples.

Conclusion – don’t believe reports about herpes in the media.

You may have seen articles in newspapers about ‘herpes in astronauts’. If you haven’t don’t bother to search – they are uniformly rubbish. Not just in Metro which you might expect, but even the Independent got it wrong. As we have written before, journalists only know about one type of herpes and assume the scientists are writing about genital herpes – they are not!

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