Genital herpes infection rate on the rise
1 in 5 Americans infected
October 15, 1997
Web posted at: 9:33 p.m. EDT (0133 GMT)
BOSTON (CNN) -- Public health officials had hoped that, in the era of AIDS, the messages about safer sex would reduce the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. But a new study suggests that is not the case when it comes to genital herpes.
In findings published in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers from Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the incidence of herpes has increased 33 percent since the 1970s.
One in every five Americans over the age of 12 now has the herpes virus, and the most dramatic increase has been among young white teens, the researchers said.
"We have seen a marked increase in our adolescents between 12 and 20 -- it's gone five times higher -- and in our young people between 20 and 30," says Dr. Andrew Nahmias of Emory. "We're concerned."
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted viral disease that causes painful sores that subside and then usually disappear. However, because the disease sometimes does not produce any immediate symptoms, only 10 percent of infected people realize they harbor the virus, even though they are able to pass it to others.
Though the painful outbreaks associated with herpes can be treated with medications, there is no cure.
According to the study, the herpes infection rate in people older than 12 jumped to 20.8 percent in 1994, up from 16 percent in 1976.
Dr. Michael St. Louis, one of the researchers, said it was surprising that the incidence of herpes went up during the 1980s, despite publicity about AIDS that led to increase emphasis on condom use. Indeed, during the same period, other sexually transmitted diseases, such as gonorrhea, have declined.
However, researchers say condoms appear to be less effective in blocking herpes than other diseases because the virus can be transmitted through parts of the body not covered by a condom.
According to researchers, the study points to the importance of education to prevent herpes, especially since people with herpes are more likely to become infected with HIV or infect others.
Genital herpes -- which is caused by the herpes simpex virus, type 2 (HSV2) -- can be dangerous during pregnancy because it can be passed from mother to child during birth, causing serious brain or eye damage, or even death.
Experts believe it is time to get tougher on herpes, with new steps including routine screening for the virus among pregnant women and at clinics where sexually transmitted diseases are treated.
"We're screening for HIV, we're screening for Hepatitis B. We aren't screening for genital herpes," said Dr. Lawrence Corey of the University of Washington.
Medical Correspondent Rhonda Rowland and Reuters contributed to this report.