Asymptomatic Reactivation and Shed of Infectious Varicella Zoster Virus in Astronauts

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Varicella zoster virus (VZV) causes varicella (chickenpox), after which virus becomes latent in ganglia along the entire neuraxis. Virus reactivation produces zoster (shingles). Infectious VZV is found in vesicles of patients with zoster and varicella, but virus shed in the absence of disease has not been documented. VZV DNA was previously detected in saliva of astronauts during and after spaceflight, a uniquely stressful environment in which cell mediated immunity (CMI) is temporally dampened. The decline in CMI to VZV associated with zoster led to the hypothesis that infectious VZV would also be present in the saliva of astronauts subjected to stress of spaceflight. Herein, not only was the detection of salivary VZV DNA associated with spaceflight validated, but also infectious virus was detected in saliva from 2 of 3 astronauts. This is the first demonstration of shed of infectious VZV in the absence of disease.

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