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Women suffering from the herpes virus are finding treatment from an unexpected source -- a drug usually prescribed by psychiatrists to treat manic depression. A study by psychiatrists at the Medical Center's Depression Research Unit has shown that lithium was effective in treating genital herpes in women, in some cases entirely eliminating the infection. Lithium is commonly used by psychiatrists to prevent the mood swings which are characteristic in manic-depressive patients. The results of the experimentation were recently published in the journals Lithium and Psychopharmacology. Colposcopy and DES Center Director Robert Giuntoli, a co-author of the study, said that the initial discovery was made by patients simultaneously suffering from both manic-depression and herpes. The patients who were being treated with lithium for their bipolar illness noticed that their herpes declined in severity. "We found out serendipitously that lithium decreases the occurrence of genital herpes," Giuntoli said. Psychiatry Research Coordinator Larry Potter, another co-author of the article, said that there had been earlier reports from Europe that lithium might be a possible treatment for herpes. "We heard that lithium ointment could stop replication of herpes and then we had word-of-mouth here at the hospital," Potter said. Potter said that two studies were carried out to test the lithium hypothesis. One group of patients received lithium for a year and a placebo for six months either before or after the period when the lithium was administered. The second group of patients were treated with either lithium or placebo for a three year duration. The studies involved 27 patients at HUP. "In most patients the addition of lithium halted the spread of herpes," Potter said. According to Giuntoli, an Associate Obstetrics and Gynecology Professor, lithium appears safe for healthy women when it is used at low levels. The double-blind study utilized a dosage which is one-third of the psychiatric amount. Depression Research Unit Director Jay Amsterdam, the main author of the study, said that lithium will serve as an alternative to the standard treatment with acyclovir. Acyclovir is not effective for all patients, some of whom experience negative side effects. "Lithium is an alternative, especially in the chronically ill patient," Amsterdam said. "It's a drug that can be used on a prolonged basis without significant side effects." At least 80 percent of women with genital herpes simplex virus infections experience the lesions more than once a year. The herpes virus initially causes redness and blistering, and the raised areas eventually rupture to form ulcers which can be very painful. According to the Centers for Disease Control, between 200,000 and 400,000 people each year suffer pain and discomfort from genital herpes.

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