Answer: Right now genital herpes and oral herpes are only treatable, not curable. But a July 2008 letter to the editor that appeared in Nature suggests that that may not always be the case.
One of the reasons that herpes infections are difficult to treat effectively is that the virus hides in the cells of the nervous system between outbreaks. During these times, when the infection is latent, the virus becomes effectively invisible to drugs and the immune system. During active infections, some of the hidden virus “wakes up” to do its dirty work, but while any virus remains hidden it’s impossible for treatment to lead to a full cure for herpes.
Researchers from Duke University appear to have found the part of the viral genome that codes for the proteins that allow the oral herpes virus to hide out during latent periods. The scientists think that they may be able to develop a drug that turns off these viral brakes, and allows the virus to come out of dormancy once and for all so that it can be thoroughly eradicated by antiviral treatment with a drug such as acyclovir. I suspect that most people with herpes would be thrilled with the possibility of a cure, even if they had to risk a massive outbreak in between receiving the drug to activate the virus and the therapy to cure it.
It will probably be quite a few years before a herpes cure based on this research is available for humans, even if the first round of animal trials are successful. Still, this news provides something that will help see people infected with the herpes virus through quite a bit of waiting… hope. For many people, the possibility that one day there might be a permanent cure, instead of just a suppressive treatment, for their herpes infection will probably feel like seeing a gorgeous wrapped present under the tree and knowing that they’ll be able to open it on Christmas morning. It might take 20 years or more before a drug is developed for human treatment, but it’s still a wonderful thing to look forward to.