INFECTION CONTROL: Kissing Spreads AIDS-related Virus

by R. A. Clappison, DDS, FRCD(C)

Herpes virus 8 was discovered in 1994 and is the cause of a cancer of the skin known as Kaposi’s sarcoma. Some researchers had suspected that the virus was transmitted by sexual intercourse but the November 9th issue of the New England Journal of Medicine reported on research from the University of Washington that refutes the idea. It appears to be spread by kissing.

Investigation by Dr. John Pauk of 39 gay men, who were infected with the herpes virus 8 but did not have Kaposi’s sarcoma, found that 30 percent of their saliva samples and mouth swabs contained the virus compared to one percent of anal and genital samples. When existent the virus levels were much higher in saliva than found in semen.

Kaposi’s sarcoma, like numerous other diseases found in people with AIDS, usually affects those with weakened immune response systems. The herpes virus 8 seldom causes illness in people with normal disease defenses.

Homosexual males who are involved in “deep kissing” appear to be at a significantly higher level of risk of catching the herpes 8 virus. The developed Kaposi’s sarcoma produces purple skin blotches and may attack internal organs. Thirty to 50 percent of HIV-infected persons who catch herpes virus 8 will ultimately develop Kaposi’s sarcoma, which has been present in Southern Europe for centuries but was rare in the United States until the AIDS epidemic commenced in the early 1980s. Higher rates of exposure in Africa are blamed on the fact that 70 percent of the people may carry the herpes virus 8, according to Dr. Patrick S. Moore, the discoverer of the virus.

Herpes virus 8 is closely related to the common Epstein Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis (the kissing disease), according to Dr. Anna Wald, another University of Washington researcher. Chicken pox, cold sores, shingles and genital herpes are other forms of herpes virus.

(1) New England Journal of Medicine, November 9, 2000.