Americans Unaware of Herpes Epidemic

Americans Unaware of Herpes Epidemic

From the WebMD Archives

May 21, 2002 -- Even though most people know that genital herpes is an incurable sexually transmitted disease that lasts a lifetime, fewer than one in five people are tested for it, according to a new report. A survey of adults in four major American cities shows that many people are still unaware about several important issues surrounding genital herpes.

In the survey, conducted by RoperASW in New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, and San Diego, 72% of respondents correctly answered that genital herpes is an incurable sexually transmitted disease (STD), but only 16% said they had ever been tested for it. And 42% admit they have never been tested for any STD.

Researchers say respondents seem to be unclear about the magnitude of the problem. Fewer than a third of those surveyed knew that more than 50 million people suffer from genital herpes, or one in five Americans over age 12. In fact, experts say 90% of people infected with the virus do not know they have it.

"We have an epidemic of genital herpes in U.S., and we're not talking about it," said Peter Leone, MD, associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, who discussed the survey's findings at an educational briefing today in New York City, sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline.

Only about one-fourth of people surveyed said they took action to learn about their partner's sexual health before engaging in sexual activity.

Researchers say many people mistakenly believe that they must suffer from symptoms such as genital blisters in order to have the disease, but many of those infected with the virus do not have symptoms. And even without symptoms, the virus may be transmitted from person to person through sexual contact.

"The main risk factor for getting genital herpes is being sexually active," said Jennifer Berman, MD, co-director of the Female Sexual Medicine Center at UCLA Medical Center, who also spoke at the briefing.

These types of misperceptions about the disease can make it harder for individuals who have the condition to deal with their diagnosis.

"When I got herpes, I was shocked," said Amada DuBoff, a genital herpes patient and coordinator of New York HELP, Genital Herpes Support Group. "I was always very aware of AIDS, so when I got herpes I was completely surprised."

Like many people infected with the herpes virus, DuBoff did not have the typical symptom of sores in the genital area. Instead, she suffered from pain and itching in the genital area and was misdiagnosed several times before her doctor performed a type-specific herpes screening test to correctly diagnose her genital herpes. This test is needed to distinguish between the two most common types of herpes virus: herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), which usually causes cold sores; and herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2), the most common cause of genital herpes.

Leone, who is also medical director of the Wake County STD Clinic, says many patients may think they are being screened for genital herpes during their annual physical or gynecological exam, but he says unless you specifically ask your doctor for a herpes test, you most likely will not receive one.

Genital herpes is not a life-threatening disease, but it is a lifelong one. Since the virus never leaves the body, it can cause recurrent outbreaks of genital blisters. Women can also pass along the virus to their children if they have an outbreak or become infected with the virus during pregnancy. In addition, recent studies have shown that having genital herpes also increases the risk of acquiring or transmitting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Although there is no cure for genital herpes, treatments are available that can either manage outbreaks as they occur (known as episodic therapy) or prevent future outbreaks by lowering the level of the virus circulating within the body (called suppressive therapy).