Viral Associated Diseases in Humans

  • In this viral associated diseases in humans post we have briefly explained about influenza, viral gastroenteritis, slow virus diseases, cancer, emerging and re-emerging viral diseases, and viral vaccines.

Viral Associated Diseases in Humans

  • Viruses are a type of infectious agent that is very small. They consist of a bit of genetic material, such as DNA or RNA, encased in a protein sheath.
  • Viruses infiltrate your body’s cells and use the cells’ components to help them reproduce. Infected cells are frequently damaged or destroyed during this process.
  • Viruses are responsible for causing some of the most serious infectious diseases to affect humans. Some important examples are discussed in a little more detail below.


  • Influenza is a disease of the respiratory tract caused by members of the Orthomyx-oviridae. Transmission occurs as a result of inhaling airborne respiratory droplets froman infected individual.
  • Infection by the influenza virus results in the destruction of epithelial cells of the respiratory tract, leaving the host open to secondary infections from bacteria such as Haemophilus influenzae and Staphylococcus aureus.
  • It is these secondary infections that are responsible for the great majority of fatalities caused by influenza.
  • Generally, sufferers from influenza recover completely within 10–14 days, but some people, notably the elderly and those with chronic health problems, may develop complications such as pneumonia.
Virus Diseases in Humans

The Influenza virus

  • The influenza virus has an envelope, and a segmented (−) sense ssRNA genome . The envelope contains two types of protein spike, each of which plays a crucial role in the virus’s infectivity:
  • Neuraminidase is an enzyme which hydrolyses sialic acid, thereby assisting in the release of viral particles.
  • Haemagglutinin enables the virus to attach to host cells by binding to epithelial sialic acid residues. It also helps in the fusion of the viral envelope with the cell membrane.
  • Both types of spike act as antigens, proteins that stimulate the production of antibodies in a host.
  • One of the reasons that influenza is such a successful virus is that the ‘N’ and ‘H’ antigens are prone to undergoing changes (antigenic shift) so that the antigenic ‘signature’ of the virus becomes altered, and host immunity is evaded.
  • Different strains of the influenza virus are given a code denoting which variants of the antigens they carry; the strain that caused the 1918 pandemic, for example, was N1H1, while the one responsible for the outbreak of ‘bird flu’ in SE Asia in 2003/4 was H5N1.

Viral Gastroenteritis

  • Everybody must surely be familiar with the symptoms of gastroenteritis – sickness, diarrhoea, headaches and fever.
  • The cause of this gastroenteritis may be bacterial (e.g.Salmonella) or viral. The major cause of the viral form is the human rotavirus , which, together with the Norwalk virus, is responsible for the majority of reported cases.
  • The rotavirus has a segmented, dsRNA genome, and is a non-enveloped virus. The virus damages the villi in the upper part of the intestinal tract, affecting normal ion transport, and resulting in the characteristic water loss.
  • Transmission of gastroenteritis is via the faecal, oral route, that is, by the ingestion of faecally contaminated food or water. Poor hygiene practice or contaminated water supplies are usually to blame for the perpetuation of the cycle.
  • Normally, the condition is self-limiting, lasting only a couple of days; the normal treatment is fluid replacement therapy. In areas where clean water supplies are not available, however, the outcome can be much more serious.
  • In the Third World, the condition is a major killer; it is the principal cause of infant mortality, and the cause of some five to ten million deaths per year.

Slow Virus Diseases

  • After an infection has passed, a virus may sometimes remain in the body for long periods, causing no harm. It may be reactivated, however, by stress or some change in the individual’s health, and initiate a disease state.
  • Well known examples of latent viral infections are cold sores and shingles, both caused by members of the herpesvirus family.
  • A virus of this sort will remain with an individual throughout their lifetime. Whereas latent virus infections are characterised by a sudden increase in virus production, in persistent (slow) infections the increase is more gradual, building up over several years.
  • Such infections have a serious effect on the target cells, and are generally fatal. An example is the measles virus, which can re-manifest itself after many years in a rare condition called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis.


  • A number of chemical and physical agents are known to trigger the uncontrolled prolif-eration of cells that characterize cancers, but in the last two decades it has become clear that at least six types of human cancer can be virally induced.
  • How do cells lose control of their division, and how are viruses able to bring this about? It is now known that cells contain genes called protooncogenes, involved in normal cell replication.
  • They are normally under the control of other, tumour-suppressor genes, but these can be blocked by proteins encoded by certain DNA viruses. When this happens, the protooncogene functions as an oncogene, and cell division is allowed to proceed uncontrolled.
  • Retro-viruses have a different mechanism; they carry their own, altered, version of the cellular oncogene, which  becomes  integrated  into  the  host’s genome and leads to uncontrolled cell growth.
  • Retro-virus oncogenes are thought to have been acquired originally from human (or animal) genomes, with the RNA transcript becoming incorporated into the retrovirus particle.

Emerging and re-emerging viral diseases

  • As a result of changes in the pathogen or in the host population, completely new infectious diseases may arise, or we may experience the reappearance of diseases previously considered to be under control.
  • These are known as, respectively, emerging and re-emerging infections. Changed patterns of human population movement are often responsible for the development of such infections, with the spread of smallpox to the New World by European colonisers being a famous example.
  • Frequently emerging virus infections are zoonotic in origin, that is, they are transferred to humans from animal reservoirs. HIV, for example, is thought to have developed from a similar virus found in monkeys.

Virus vaccines

  • Smallpox, once the scourge of millions, was in 1979 the first infectious disease to be declared successfully eradicated. This followed a worldwide campaign of vaccination by the World Health Organisation over the previous decade, and was made feasible by the fact that humans are the only reservoir for the virus. 
  • Vaccination is a preventative strategy that aims to stimulate the host immune system, by exposing it to the infectious agent in question in an inactivated or incomplete form. There are four main classes of virus vaccines:

Attenuated Vaccines

  • Attenuated Vaccines contain ‘live’ viruses, but ones whose pathogenicity has been greatly reduced. The aim is to mimic an infection in order to stimulate an immune response, but without bringing about the disease itself. A famous example of this type of vaccine is the polio vaccine developed by Albert Sabin in the 1960s.
  • The cowpox virus used by Edward Jenner in his pioneering vaccination work in the late 18th century was a naturally occurring attenuated version of the smallpox virus.

Inactivated vaccines

  • Inactivated vaccines contain viruses which have been exposed to a denaturing agent such as formalin.
  • This has the effect of rendering them non-infectious, while at the same time retaining their ability to stimulate an immune response. Vaccines directed against influenza are of this type.

Subunit vaccines

  • Subunit vaccines depend on the stimulation of an immune response by just a part of the virus. Since the complete virus is not introduced, there is no chance of infection, so vaccines of this type have the attraction of being very safe. 
  • Subunit vaccines are often made using recombinant DNA technology; the first example to be approved for human use was the hepatitis B vaccine, which consists of part of the protein coat of the virus produced in specially engineered yeast cells.

DNA vaccines

  • DNA vaccines are also the product of modern molecular biology techniques. DNA coding for virus antigens is directly injected into the host, where it is expressed and triggers a response by the immune system. Vaccines of this type have not so far been approved for use in humans.

Further Readings