In some cases, vaccines can be used to treat an active viral infection. In the case of rabies, a fatal neurological disease transmitted in the saliva of rabies virus-infected animals, the progression of the disease from the time of the animal bite to the time it enters the central nervous system may be two weeks or longer. This is enough time to vaccinate an individual who suspects being bitten by a rabid animal, and the boosted immune response from the vaccination is enough to prevent the virus from entering nervous tissue. Thus, the fatal neurological consequences of the disease are averted and the individual only has to recover from the infected bite. This approach is also being used for the treatment of Ebola, one of the fastest and most deadly viruses affecting humans, though usually infecting limited populations. Ebola is also a leading cause of death in gorillas. Transmitted by bats and great apes, this virus can cause death in 70–90 percent of the infected within two weeks. Using newly developed vaccines that boost the immune response, there is hope that immune systems of affected individuals will be better able to control the virus, potentially reducing mortality rates.
Another way of treating viral infections is the use of antiviral drugs. These drugs often have limited ability to cure viral disease but have been used to control and reduce symptoms for a wide variety of viral diseases. For most viruses, these drugs inhibit the virus by blocking the actions of one or more of its proteins. It is important that the targeted proteins be encoded for by viral genes and that these molecules are not present in a healthy host cell. In this way, viral growth is inhibited without damaging the host. There are large numbers of antiviral drugs available to treat infections, some specific for a particular virus and others that can affect multiple viruses.
Antivirals have been developed to treat genital herpes (herpes simplex II) and influenza. For genital herpes, drugs such as acyclovir can reduce the number and duration of the episodes of active viral disease during which patients develop viral lesions in their skins cells. As the virus remains latent in nervous tissue of the body for life, this drug is not a cure but can make the symptoms of the disease more manageable. For influenza, drugs like Tamiflu can reduce the duration of “flu” symptoms by one or two days, but the drug does not prevent symptoms entirely. Other antiviral drugs, such as Ribavirin, have been used to treat a variety of viral infections.
By far the most successful use of antivirals has been in the treatment of the retrovirus HIV, which causes a disease that, if untreated, is usually fatal within 10–12 years after being infected. Anti-HIV drugs have been able to control viral replication to the point that individuals receiving these drugs survive for a significantly longer time than the untreated.
Anti-HIV drugs inhibit viral replication at many different phases of the HIV replicative cycle. Drugs have been developed that inhibit the fusion of the HIV viral envelope with the plasma membrane of the host cell (fusion inhibitors), the conversion of its RNA genome to double-stranded DNA (reverse transcriptase inhibitors), the integration of the viral DNA into the host genome (integrase inhibitors), and the processing of viral proteins (protease inhibitors).
When any of these drugs are used individually, the virus’ high mutation rate allows the virus to rapidly evolve resistance to the drug. The breakthrough in the treatment of HIV was the development of highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART), which involves a mixture of different drugs, sometimes called a drug “cocktail.” By attacking the virus at different stages of its replication cycle, it is difficult for the virus to develop resistance to multiple drugs at the same time. Still, even with the use of combination HAART therapy, there is concern that, over time, the virus will evolve resistance to this therapy. Thus, new anti-HIV drugs are constantly being developed with the hope of continuing the battle against this highly fatal virus.