Health Alert: Rugby, Sumo, Wrestling and Martial Arts Virus Can Kill

Recent research carried out by Tokyo University, and published in the Journal of General Virology, has revealed that viral skin infections are more easily spread in contact sports than previously thought. The study examined sumo wrestlers already infected with herpes gladiatorum. This strain. although less common that other herpes strains, was found to be more easily transmitted and often more severe that other types of virus.

In recent months two people have died from the skin virus that is highly contagious and spread via sweat. The virus is known as the “sumo virus” in Japan, because sumo wrestlers are most prone to infection due to prolonged periods of contact. Known as scrumpox in the UK, Herpes gladiatorum is passed through broken skin. It is also known to spread between rugby players as well as wrestlers and fighters.


This herpes strain is similar to the more common genital herpes and cold sores, which are usually sexually transmitted. Herpes gladiatorum is spreads via sweat into broken skin. If an infected person is in close contact with someone, then the virus can easily pass into the blood stream if there is any broken skin. This is most likely in combat sports, such as MMA, wrestling, sumo and judo, although sports such as Rugby can also pose a risk.

The virus usually causes red sores which blister. Although it can be treated with antiviral drugs, like genital herpes, often it is never fully eradicated. The virus can re-emerge on a regular basis, especially when the immune system is weakened, either through illness or over-training. It is most prevalent amongst sumo wrestlers and Indian wrestlers, who live in communal training quarters, known as “heyas” in Japan. These training quarters provide ideal places for the virus to thrive and spread.

In the study group, two of the infected wrestlers died due to a sever reaction to the virus. The research did not examine if there were other factors which weakened the subjects, resulting in their deaths.

There is also more than one strain of herpes gladiatorum. One of the problems of the virus is that it can lay dormant in nerve endings for a long period of time, before symptoms appear.

Lead researcher, Dr Kazuo Yanagi, said that “Our research showed that the BgKl strain of herpes is reactivated, spreads more efficiently and causes more severe symptoms that BgOl, and other strains.
As two of the wrestlers died as a result of their infections, cases like this do need to be investigated.”

In the UK the BgKl strain is more commonly known as “scrumpox”, as it is usually transmitted between infected Rugby players while in the scrum. It is the most widely reported form of herpes gladiatorum in the UK.

However, Professor Will Irving from Nottingham University, said that is was very uncommon for serious illness, or death, to occur in otherwise healthy patients. The symptoms of the virus are more like that of cold sores which show on the back and elsewhere rather than on the lips and mouth. “To the vast majority of people, it would be a nuisance, but nothing more serious.”

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