NEW YORK -- Experts estimate each year 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. is either living with, or will become newly infected with, a sexually transmitted disease (STD), with genital herpes being one of the most common. Yet, despite the prevalence of individuals with genital herpes, the awareness, diagnosis, treatment and testing of this STD remain remarkably low.
In 1991, an estimated 45 million, or 1 in 5, Americans were infected with the virus that causes genital herpes. Experts estimate that now 60 million Americans could have the virus that causes genital herpes, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately 1 million people are infected each year.
"Genital herpes still remains a hidden epidemic in this country," said Peter Leone, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Medicine and medical director of the North Carolina HIV/STD Prevention and Control Branch, Department of Health and Human Services. "One of the reasons herpes continues to spread is because as little as 10 percent of the people with the virus know they have it."
The virus is spread through physical skin-to-skin contact and often during times when there are no visible signs of a herpes outbreak.
In fact, one study showed up to 70 percent of people may get genital herpes from a partner with genital herpes who reported no signs or symptoms during recent sexual contact. This is one of the reasons it is so important for people to know if they or their partner has genital herpes.
"Taking control of the disease requires knowing a partner's status, recognizing the symptoms, treating the disease and doing what they can to reduce the risk of spreading genital herpes to a partner," said Leone. "Genital herpes sufferers need to know that they should avoid sex during outbreaks and that condoms are recommended for all sexual encounters even between outbreaks. In addition, there are very effective treatments available, which can help suppress outbreaks before they occur."
Genital herpes is a contagious viral infection primarily caused by the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) that spreads through physical skin-to-skin contact in the genital area. It can affect both men and women, causing periodic outbreaks that may appear as painful or itchy clusters of blisters, bumps and rashes in the genital area, or on the thighs or buttocks. Many of these people confuse symptoms of genital herpes with other conditions such as jock itch, yeast infections, insect bites and allergic reactions, so they never bring it up to their physicians. While genital herpes is not a life-threatening disease, the virus never leaves the body, making it a lifelong condition that can recur at various times with or without symptoms.
While there is no cure for herpes, patients have choices in how they manage the disease including suppressive therapy, which involves taking a prescription medicine every day to help suppress outbreaks of genital herpes before they occur, and outbreak therapy (also called episodic therapy), which involves taking a prescription medicine at the first sign of a genital herpes outbreak and treating each outbreak as it occurs. There are no treatments proven to reduce the risk of genital herpes transmission.
To learn more about sexually transmitted diseases and/or genital herpes, contact the National STD Hotline at 800-227-8922, visit the American Social Health Association (ASHA) online at www.ashastd.org/.