Herpes is a common contagious infection. There are two types of herpes viruses. Herpes simplex virus type 1 (also known as HSV-1) typically causes recurrent, painful sores on the mouth and face, although it can also be transmitted to the genital area. Herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) usually causes blisters and pain in the genital and anal areas. Although herpes infections cannot be cured, recent surveys show that the prevalence of genital herpes infections has declined, especially among teens and young adults, in the last decade.
In national health surveys conducted between 1988-1994 and 1999-2004, 14- to 49-year-olds reported whether they'd ever been diagnosed with genital herpes. The majority of study participants also provided blood samples for testing for antibodies to HSV-1 and HSV-2. The presence of antibodies in the blood indicates a previous infection with the herpes virus, even if a person hasn't experienced symptoms.
Overall, the prevalence of HSV-1 and HSV-2 declined between the time of the first and second surveys. In the first survey, the percentage of people with HSV-1 antibodies decreased from 62% in 1988-1994 to about 58% in 1999-2004. In addition, the percentage of people with HSV-2 antibodies decreased from 21% in 1988-1994 to 17% in 1999-2004. This decrease was especially noteworthy among 14- to 19-year-olds, in whom HSV-2 prevalence rates dropped from about 6% in 1988-1994 to under 2% in 1999-2004, which corresponds to 1 million fewer infections in this age group.
Despite these encouraging statistics about the declining prevalence of herpes infections, researchers did learn that in people infected with HSV-1 but not HSV-2, a higher percentage had been diagnosed with genital herpes in 1999-2004. This means that genital herpes caused by HSV-1 may be on the rise in the United States.
What This Means to You. The authors of this study suggest that teens may be taking fewer sexual risks by choosing sexual partners more carefully, using condoms, and choosing oral sex over vaginal sex. These choices may be contributing to the reduced rates of herpes infection in this age group. When talking to kids about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), discuss the fact that abstinence is the only certain way to prevent STDs, and that any who are sexually active can reduce the risk of STDs like herpes by using a condom every time they have sex. If you have questions about how to talk with your kids about sex, talk to your doctor.
Source: Fujie Xu, MD, PhD; Maya R. Sternberg, PhD; Benny J. Kottiri, PhD; Geraldine M. McQuillan, PhD; Francis K. Lee, PhD; Andre J. Nahmias, MD; Stuart M. Berman, MD, ScM; Lauri E. Markowitz, MD; Journal of the American Medical Association, August 23/30, 2006.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: October 2006