Viral Diseases

In order to understand viral infections, one must understand a little about how a virus functions. All viruses are obligate parasites ; that is, they depend on a "host" to survive and reproduce. In the case of a virus, the host is the cell of a living organism. Outside of a host cell, viruses are inert molecules, waiting to attach to a victim cell. Although viruses contain genetic material (either deoxyribonucleic acid [DNA] or ribonucleic acid [RNA]), they lack the internal machinery (organelles) to produce proteins from the information contained in their own genetic code . The simplest virus contains only three genes.

A viral infection begins when a virus inserts its genetic material into a host cell. First, the virus attaches to a specific structure on the cell's surface via an attachment protein. Depending on the virus, either the genetic material diffuses into the host cell or the entire virus enters the cell. The poliomyelitis virus may have over one million copies of its basic genetic information (RNA) inside a single, infected human intestinal mucosal cell.

One or more of the genes on the viral genetic material code for enzymes that essentially "hijack" the host cell, causing it to produce only viral parts, which are then assembled into copies of the virus within the host cell. These viral copies are released, leaving the cell either by a process called "budding" (where just one or a few viruses leave the cell at a time) or by a process called lysis (where the cellular membrane ruptures and releases all of the virus particles at once). Both processes usually kill the host cell. The new viruses then infect surrounding cells, continuing the process. Examples of diseases that are viral in origin are influenza (swine flu), some types of pneumonia, poliomyelitis, cold sores and shingles, and AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

Of course, host cells have several defenses against the viral attacks. For example, in animals (including humans), viral infection leads to the synthesis and secretion of proteins called interferons , which "interfere" with viral replication by helping adjacent uninfected cells become resistant to infection. Often, this is not enough to stop the spread of infection, and the body's immune system can cause fever, achiness, tiredness, and other defenses, making the person feel "sick" but acting to help the body fight off the attack. Eventually, the virus is completely removed, and the symptoms subside.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is an exception to this situation because HIV infects cells of the immune system that are necessary to kill the infected cells. So, although HIV does not itself directly cause the condition known as AIDS, the eventual death of immune cells allows other infections to spread (called secondary infections).

So far, no agents have been identified that are secreted by a cell that actually kills a virus. Although antibiotics are effective against bacteria, they do not kill viruses. Recently, there have been agents called antivirals designed in the laboratory and isolated from natural sources that are being used to fight certain viral infections. For example, protease inhibitors are used to inhibit the replication of HIV.

SEE ALSO AIDS ; Disease ; DNA Viruses ; Retrovirus ; Sexually Transmitted Diseases ; Virus

Carl J. Shuster


Crawford, Dorothy H. The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Voyles, Bruce A. The Biology of Viruses. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.

The first outbreaks of the paralyzing poliomyelitis (polio) virus in the United States occurred in the early nineteenth century. It reached its peak in 1952 when more than 21,000 people were infected. Due to the effective use of vaccines, the incidence of polio declined rapidly; the last documented transmission of the virus in the United States was 1979.

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