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To reduce the risk of genital herpes, use a condom -- every time

July 13, 2009 |  4:22 pm

Condom We've assumed that condoms can reduce the spread of genital herpes -- but without complete, or at least well-quantified, confidence in the assumption.  

This fact sheet from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sums up the reason for such hesitation: "Genital ulcer diseases can occur in both male and female genital areas that are covered or protected by a latex condom, as well as in areas that are not covered."

Then there's the problem of transmission without visible signs of infection. As the National Institutes of Health states: "Most people get genital herpes by having sex with someone who is shedding the herpes virus either during an outbreak or an asymptomatic (without symptoms) period. People who do not know they have herpes play an important role in transmission because they are unaware they can infect a sexual partner."

Researchers at the University of Washington, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and elsewhere decided to try to clarify just how much condoms can reduce the spread of genital herpes, known medically as herpes simplex virus 2 (or HSV-2).
They analyzed six studies of various types, all of which featured data on individual condom use and on HSV-2 acquisition.

They found that people who always used condoms had a 30% decreased risk of acquiring genital herpes when compared with people who never used condoms.

In clarifying further, the researchers stated: "Risk of HSV-2 acquisition decreased by 7% for every additional 25% of the time that condoms were used during anal or vaginal sex. Risk of HSV-2 acquisition also rose steadily and significantly with increasing frequency of unprotected sex acts, and our findings were consistent throughout multiple analysis strategies."

The results were published today in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Here's the abstract.

The upshot of the study: "Although the magnitude of protection was not as large as has been observed with other STIs, we found that condoms offer moderate protection against HSV-2 acquisition in men and women."

Here's more information on genital herpes from the National Institutes of Health, including details on asymptomatic shedding:

"Sometimes, the virus can become active but not cause any visible sores or any symptoms. During these times, small amounts of the virus may be shed at or near places of the first infection, in fluids from the mouth, penis, or vagina, or from barely noticeable sores. This is called asymptomatic shedding. Even though you are not aware of the shedding, you can infect a sexual partner during this time. Asymptomatic shedding is an important factor in the spread of herpes."

And here's the aforementioned fact sheet on genital herpes from the CDC.

The key here is consistent use. Not sometime use, but consistent use.

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: A health worker in the Philippines conducts a seminar recently on the proper use of a condom.

Credit: Francis R. Malasig / EPA