"Honey, I've got genital herpes" is a phrase no one wants to hear upon entering a romantic relationship, but the prevalence of the sexually transmitted disease (STD) is rather high.
There are at least eight human herpes viruses-including chickenpox and Epstein-Barr-but only two are related to genital herpes: herpes simplex type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 usually causes oral herpes, resulting in sores around the mouth commonly called "cold sores" or "fever blisters." HSV-1 can also cause genital herpes and can be passed by sexual contact, including but not limited to oral sex, although many people contract the virus through nonsexual means in early childhood. HSV-2 causes genital herpes, which can include symptoms such as painful blisters that break open into sores.
The odds are 1 in 5.81 that a person 14-49 has genital herpes caused by HSV-2. Women are more likely to have it (1 in 4.33) than men (1 in 8.93), possibly because male-to-female transmission of the virus is easier than female-to-male transmission. However, this doesn't mean that 1 in every 5.81 people is uttering the dreaded admission to his or her new partner. Liars aside, many people infected with the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or type 2 (HSV-2) simply don't know it. Of those between 14 and 49 that have genital herpes, the odds are that only 1 in 6.99 have actually been diagnosed with it. A lot of people are walking around in asymptomatic blissful ignorance or even active denial of symptoms, potentially infecting unsuspecting partners.
Although most think of genital herpes as purely an STD, and safer sex can greatly reduce the chances of transmission, abstinence won't necessarily keep you safe. The odds a person 14-49 who reports having no sexual partners in his or her lifetime has genital herpes are 1 in 38.46. At the other extreme, perhaps not surprisingly, the odds that a person 14-49 who has had 50 or more sexual partners in his or her lifetime has genital herpes are 1 in 2.51.
There are several reasons why so many people with herpes are undiagnosed. Many people never experience symptoms, and those that do may be too embarrassed to get tested due to the stigma of having an STD. But even those that do get tested may not get an accurate diagnosis. Antibodies to the virus may take months to develop in an infected person's body, so tests taken soon after infection may give negative results.
For those that do receive an accurate diagnosis of genital herpes, all is not lost. They are certainly not alone, and with proper precautions, they can keep their partners safe. Or, they can even meet other infected partners on herpes dating sites such as H-Date.com, which features forums where users can discuss the difficulties they've faced since becoming infected. Although HSV-1 and HSV-2 are lifelong infections, symptoms tend to decrease and outbreaks become less frequent over time.
And the good news is that the incidence of HSV-2 infection appears to be on the decline. The US National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES), a nationally representative survey conducted periodically, found that HSV-2 infection rates in the US among persons aged 14 to 49, as measured by the presence of the virus in the bloodstream, decreased by 19% between NHANES 1988-1994 and NHANES 1999-2004.
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Posted By: Rachel Leah Blumenthal
IStock Photo 1959916 © David Dycus