OTTAWA -- According to a recent study of 36 primary care physician (PCP) offices in relatively affluent suburban areas of six U.S. cities, one-fourth of people (25.5 percent) tested positive for the virus that causes genital herpes, despite the fact only four percent reported a history of the condition. As the study shows, genital herpes infection rates were high even among suburban, educated and mid-high income populations. The results of this study were presented today at the 15th Biennial Congress of the International Society for Sexually Transmitted Diseases Research (ISSTDR).
"These findings help to break the stereotype that there are only certain types of people that have herpes," said Douglas Fleming, MD, lead study author and assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J.
"One of the reasons herpes continues to spread is because very few people with the virus know they have it. In order to help manage the spread of the disease, both doctors and patients need to be aware that everyone who is sexually active is at risk for getting herpes."
Most people who carry the virus are unaware they have the disease because they never recognize the signs of infection. They often mistake the symptoms of genital herpes with other conditions, such as urinary tract infections (UTIs), fungal infections (e.g., jock itch), allergic reactions or even ingrown hairs. This lack of recognition and testing often results in the herpes virus being unknowingly passed to others.
"Knowing that herpes is highly prevalent among affluent and educated people living in the suburbs should help to erase some of the stigma so commonly associated with the disease," said Dr. Ruth Westheimer, America's leading sex and relationship therapist. "The prevalence statistics should not be used to scare people, but encourage everyone to always practice safer sex, including the use of condoms, to get tested, to learn how to help prevent the continued spread of the disease and, if they are infected, to understand their choices in managing the disease."
The study took place at six randomly selected PCP offices in relatively affluent areas in each of six U.S. cities (Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver). At each office, approximately 150 people age 18-59 volunteered to participate. All blood samples were sent to a central laboratory to determine if the sample was seropositive for HSV-2, in other words, had the virus that causes genital herpes (GH). All samples were analyzed using the Focus Technologies HerpeSelect(R) 2 ELISA IgG test designed specifically to detect HSV-2 antibodies in the blood.
In total, 5,732 people were screened; 5,452 provided an analyzable blood sample and 5,433 completed a questionnaire. The final sample was 75 percent white, 14 percent African American, and 4 percent Hispanic. Eighty percent were employed full- or part-time, 74 percent had some college or higher education, 45 percent had a household income of $60,000 or higher, and 68 percent were married/living with their partner.
The overall weighted HSV-2 seroprevalence was 25.5 percent -- that means 1 in 4 people tested positive for the virus that causes genital herpes. The seroprevalence increased from 13.4 percent in the 18-29-year age group, to 25.2 percent (30-39 years), to 31.2 percent (40-49 years) and 28.0 percent (50-59 years). Seroprevalence among women (28.3 percent) was greater than that among men (22.0 percent), and was consistently higher across all age groups. Of the 1,387 people that tested positive for genital herpes, only 12 percent knew they were infected.
The study showed that higher levels of education, income, and marital status did not reduce the chances of having genital herpes: those with some college had a prevalence of 27 percent, college graduates had a prevalence of 22 percent, married individuals had a prevalence of 24 percent, those living with their partners had a prevalence of 29 percent, and those with household incomes of $60,000-$80,000 had a prevalence of 25 percent while those with incomes over $100,000 had a prevalence of 22 percent.
The study was sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline.
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 people confuse genital herpes symptoms with other conditions such as ingrown hair, jock itch, zipper burn, hemorrhoids, allergic reactions, urinary tract infections (UTIs), vaginal infections, insect bites, a cut or a scratch, and irritations from sexual intercourse or tight jeans. 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 CDC estimates that approximately 1 million people are infected each year.
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. 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. While there is no cure for herpes, patients can manage the disease with suppressive therapy, which involves taking a prescription medicine every day to help suppress outbreaks of genital herpes before they occur, and 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 spreading herpes to others.