No, I don’t mean what happens when your YouTube video goes viral. Viruses can play many important and beneficial roles in your health. A common example is the flu shot. Without getting into the heated debate of the risks of vaccinations, the flu shot is a clear example of how the benefits far outweigh the risks. Every year, thousands of people die from the flu. Contrary to what some believe, the flu vaccine does not give you the flu.
So why do some people get the flu despite having the shot? Usually, it’s because they are exposed to a strain that is not covered by that year’s vaccine, or they received it too late (it can take two weeks from the time of the injection for it to become effective). If this coincidentally occurs right after the shot, you might assume that the vaccine caused the flu. Also, some people will experience a mild fever following the injection as a result of their immune system appropriately reacting to the vaccine.
Now for the cool stuff! Viruses may help us win the fight against cancer. Viruses are comprised mainly of a short segment of DNA (or RNA). They have the unique ability to insert this DNA fragment into the DNA of our cells, thereby making those cells sick. But imagine if we can manipulate a virus such that it inserts itself into a cancer cell’s genetic material. After all, a cancer cell is merely a normal cell in which the DNA has become altered, causing it to behave abnormally. Taking this one step further, what if we first inserted a man-made piece of DNA into that virus? That virus could then insert instructions either into cancer cells or into our immune cells that will fight these cancer cells.
Does all this sound too good to be true? Actually, using viruses to treat cancer is in the later stages of testing. I would not be surprised if they were put to clinical use within the next five years. In the meantime, wash your hands often and be careful with which e-mails you open!