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Genital herpes is widespread, CDC says

March 9, 2010 |  4:32 pm

Nearly one in every two African American women ages 14 to 49 has genital herpes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday. Overall, two out of every five blacks in that age group carry the virus, and one out of every six Americans, the agency announced at an STD Prevention Conference in Atlanta.  The proportions have not changed since the agency's last estimate for the period 1999 to 2004. About 80% of those who carry the virus do not know they are infected. Women appear to be particularly susceptible to infection, with 21% of women infected, compared with 11.5% of men.

"The message is herpes is quite common," Dr. John M. Douglas Jr. of the CDC's division of STD prevention said in a telephone news conference. "The symptoms can often be very innocuous," which explains why so many are unaware of their condition.

Genital herpes, known more precisely as herpes simplex virus type 2 or HSV-2, is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the country. It can cause recurrent and painful genital sores. The infections cannot be cured, but lesions can be controlled with antiviral drugs such as Zovirax, Zirgan and Valtrex, which halve the likelihood of transmission to a sexual partner. The virus is most commonly transmitted when sores are present in the genital area but can be transmitted even when they are not. "Many individuals are transmitting herpes to others without even knowing it," Douglas said. The agency does not recommend widespread screening for infections but does suggest that people with symptoms that might be caused by the virus be tested by their physicians. Surveys reported at the conference suggest that many people, especially women, are anxious or uncomfortable about seeking STD testing and are unwilling to have a positive result appear in their medical records.

Research has shown that people who are infected with HSV-2 are two to three times more likely than others to contract HIV. The virus can also render HIV-positive people more likely to transmit the virus to others. Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of the CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TM Prevention, noted in the conference that the wide dissemination of HSV-2 in the black community may be partialy responsible for the high incidence of HIV infections there. Although African Americans make up only 12% of the U.S. population, they account for 50% of all HIV infections.

The new data come from the CDC's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and cover the years 2005 to 2008. The prevalence is down slightly from the previous survey, but the difference is not statistically significant.

A different herpes virus, herpes simplex virus type 1, causes oral sores and is not considered to be as serious.

The CDC estimates that about 19 million new STD infections occur every year in the United States and that the infections cost the healthcare system $16 billion annually.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II

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