U.S. Teens More Vulnerable to Genital Herpes: Study
They may have lower levels of protective antibodies to the virus than in years past
"I tell patients herpes is like your credit history -- whatever you did you can never get rid of," said one expert not connected to the study, Dr. Marcelo Laufer, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Miami Children's Hospital.
"Every year the proportion of patients who get infected with HSV-1 through oral sex is increasing," he said. "Adolescents who reach that age without being exposed to HSV-1 might, through oral sex, be more susceptible to the infection."
The virus is usually passed through saliva, but in more recent years better hygiene may have kept the virus from spreading to young children, Laufer theorized. That means that fewer children are now exposed and are producing antibodies against HSV.
HSV-1 and HSV-2 can also cause significant problems for newborn infants, who don't yet have mature immune systems capable of fighting the viruses. As many as 30 percent of infected babies die from this infection if they have the most severe form of the disease, Kimberlin noted.
In the new study, a team of researchers led by Heather Bradley of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used data from federal government surveys to track the prevalence of herpes among 14- to 49-year-olds in the United States.
Overall, they found that 54 percent of Americans in this age range were infected with HSV-1.
Among 14- to 19-year-olds, however, the prevalence of protective HSV-1 antibodies fell by nearly 23 percent from 1999 to 2010, the research team found.
Among those aged 20 to 29, HSV-1 prevalence dropped more than 9 percent. HSV-1 prevalence remained stable among those in their 30s and 40s.
These data suggest that more teens lack HSV-1 antibodies at their first sexual encounter now than in decades past, and so are more susceptible to genital herpes.
"In combination with increased oral sex behaviors among young people, this means that adolescents may be more likely than those in previous time periods to genitally acquire HSV-1," the researchers concluded.