May 24 2004
According to a recent study of 36 primary care physician (PCP) offices in relatively affluent suburban areas of six U.S. cities, one in four people (25.5 percent) tested positive for the virus that causes genital herpes, despite the fact that only four percent of all those tested reported a history of the condition. As the study shows, genital herpes infection rates were high even among suburban, educated and mid to high income populations.
The results of this study were published in this month's issue of Sexually Transmitted Diseases. "Genital herpes continues to spread because very few people with the virus know they have it.
The prevalence statistics are important for both patients and doctors because they show that people of all backgrounds are at high risk for contracting genital herpes.
This is especially important because people can be contagious even when they do not have symptoms of infection," said Peter Leone, lead author of the study and an associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "The study should encourage everyone to practice safer sex, get tested, and if they are infected learn how to manage 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 were randomly chosen to participate. All blood samples were sent to a central laboratory. A positive test result indicated they were infected with HSV-2, 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; of 5,452 people who provided an analyzable blood sample, 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 ranged 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 employment status, marital status and income did not reduce the chances of having genital herpes. Those who were employed full- time had a prevalence of 26 percent, married individuals had a prevalence of 24 percent, those living with their partners had a prevalence of 26 percent, and those with household incomes of $60,000-$80,000 had a prevalence of 24 percent while those with incomes over $100,000 had a prevalence of 21 percent. Those with some college had a prevalence of 28 percent and college graduates had a prevalence of 21 percent. The study was sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world's leading research-based pharmaceutical and health care companies.
In 1991, an estimated 1 in 5, or 45 million, Americans were infected with the virus that causes genital herpes. Experts estimate that up to 60 million Americans have the virus that causes genital herpes and the CDC estimates that approximately 1 million people are infected each year. However, as many as nine out of ten of those infected are unaware they have genital herpes and may only have experienced a mild initial outbreak without recognizing recurring symptoms of the disease. Symptoms of genital herpes may include 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 urinary tract infections (UTIs), ingrown hair, jock itch, zipper burn, allergic reactions, vaginal infections, a cut or a scratch, or irritation from sexual intercourse or tight jeans. Though the disease is most contagious during an outbreak, it can also be contagious between outbreaks when no signs and symptoms are present. In fact, in clinical studies, the majority of people got genital herpes from a partner who knew they had genital herpes but reported no signs or symptoms at the time of recent sexual activity.