Herpes Zoster - History

History

Herpes zoster has a long recorded history, although historical accounts fail to distinguish the blistering caused by VZV and those caused by smallpox, ergotism, and erysipelas. It was only in the late 18th century that William Heberden established a way to differentiate between herpes zoster and smallpox, and only in the late 19th century that herpes zoster was differentiated from erysipelas. In 1831, Richard Bright hypothesized that the disease arose from the dorsal root ganglion, and this was confirmed in an 1861 paper by Felix von Bärensprung.

The first indications that chickenpox and herpes zoster were caused by the same virus were noticed at the beginning of the 20th century. Physicians began to report that cases of herpes zoster were often followed by chickenpox in the younger people who lived with the shingles patients. The idea of an association between the two diseases gained strength when it was shown that lymph from a sufferer of herpes zoster could induce chickenpox in young volunteers. This was finally proved by the first isolation of the virus in cell cultures, by the Nobel laureate Thomas Huckle Weller, in 1953.

Until the 1940s, the disease was considered benign, and serious complications were thought to be very rare. However, by 1942, it was recognized that herpes zoster was a more serious disease in adults than in children, and that it increased in frequency with advancing age. Further studies during the 1950s on immunosuppressed individuals showed that the disease was not as benign as once thought, and the search for various therapeutic and preventive measures began. By the mid-1960s, several studies identified the gradual reduction in cellular immunity in old age, observing that in a cohort of 1,000 people who lived to the age of 85, approximately 500 (i.e., 50%) would have at least one attack of herpes zoster, and 10 (i.e., 1%) would have at least two attacks.

In historical shingles studies, shingles incidence generally increased with age. However, in his 1965 paper, Dr. Hope-Simpson was first to suggest, “The peculiar age distribution of zoster may in part reflect the frequency with which the different age groups encounter cases of varicella and because of the ensuing boost to their antibody protection have their attacks of zoster postponed.” Lending support to this hypothesis that contact with children with chickenpox boosts adult cell-mediated immunity to help postpone or suppress shingles, is the study by Thomas et al., which reported that adults in households with children had lower rates of shingles than households without children. Also, the study by Terada et al. indicated that pediatricians reflected incidence rates from 1/2 to 1/8 that of the general population their age.

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