Almost everyone has been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus. When doctors look for evidence of infection with Epstein-Barr—such as an immune response to it—they find it more than 90 percent of the time in adults. The good news is that immune response is so routine for the body that infected people, particularly if they’re not immunocompromised, shrug it right off, and almost no one who has the virus actually shows symptoms of illness due to it. This is especially true in children, half of whom pick up the virus by age five, but even people who catch it during or after adolescence become ill, usually with mononucleosis, less than half the time.
Unfortunately, not all Epstein-Barr diseases are so benign. Along with the "kissing disease," the virus is linked with some strains of herpes. Some types of lymphoma are caused by Epstein-Barr, as well as the kind of throat cancer that affects the top of the throat behind the nose. Furthermore, Epstein-Barr infection raises the risk of multiple sclerosis, particularly later in life. However, these complications are rare, which, combined with the ubiquitous nature and easy transmission of the virus—in saliva, though it is not airborne—means that developing an effective vaccine has been both difficult, while at the same time it has not been a goal widely pursued by medical researchers.
Now, however, scientists think they have an unprecedented grasp on how the virus functions, how it does so well, and possibly how to stop it. Epstein-Barr achieves its infectious success by attacking the immune system as well as the throat, destroying the signals that alert the immune system to it’s presence. Under laboratory conditions, researchers were able to get the immune cells that deal with Epstein-Barr to find the virus despite this.
In a different study, researchers looked at how Epstein-Barr and related viruses infect cells. The viruses are under great pressure, and forcefully shoot their genes into host cells to infect them. The researchers hypothesize that they can weaken the infectious power of the virus by reducing the pressure—a treatment that won’t be vulnerable to mutations in the virus, because it is based on structural rather than biological features.