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Herpes Rates Could Explode by 2025

Study contends nearly half of U.S. women might be infected

FRIDAY, Oct. 11, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Nearly half of all young American women could suffer from genital herpes by the year 2025 if nothing more is done to stem the disease's spread, a new study contends.

As for young men, a group of U.S. and Canadian epidemiologists is estimating they won't be much better off than their female counterparts. In less than three decades, 39 percent of males aged 15 to 39 could have herpes, the researchers predict.

Besides the costs in medical care and personal suffering, such an increase in herpes could also exacerbate other health threats, says Dr. Michael Horberg, an authority on sexually transmitted diseases (STD).

"The presence of herpes causes inflammation, and increases your risk of contracting other STDs like HIV," he says.

While herpes gets only a fraction of the attention of potentially deadly STDs such as AIDS and syphilis, it is much more common. An estimated 22 percent of adult Americans are infected with a genital strain known as herpes simplex virus type 2.

In the most serious cases, the disease can cause spinal problems and brain swelling. "Needless to say, it's very painful," Horberg adds.

Herpes can be especially risky for women. "The big concern is if they have active herpes during pregnancy," Horberg says. "They can pass it to the baby during delivery, and it can cause blindness and other defects."

Drugs usually can suppress the herpes virus during outbreaks, but those infected can become contagious before they notice the lesions that come during outbreaks, he says.

In the new study, the epidemiologists developed a mathematical formula to estimate how the herpes epidemic among heterosexuals will evolve over the next few decades.

The findings appear in the October issue of the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases.

The researchers estimate that 49 percent of women aged 15 to 39 will be infected with herpes simplex virus type 2 by 2025 if present trends continue. The associated medical costs would rise to $2.7 billion in 2025, from $1.8 billion in 2000.

The researchers' predictions could indeed come to pass, but figuring out the trajectory of a disease is tricky business, says Frank Myers, an epidemiologist at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego who was not involved in the study.

For example, some health experts in the 1980s predicted the rates of tuberculosis in the United States would level off or increase slightly if prevention budgets were cut. However, tuberculosis rates actually skyrocketed as HIV entered the picture and made thousands of people more vulnerable to the disease, Myers says.

In another example, experts predicted the HIV epidemic would keep growing rapidly, but they didn't anticipate that gay men would adopt safer sex practices, he says.

Herpes can't be cured, so it seems logical that it would keep increasing, Myers says, "but the authors and I could be wrong."

Regardless of the trends in herpes infection, sexually active Americans can prevent getting the disease by wearing condoms or insisting on their use and by avoiding sex with people who have active lesions, Horberg says. He adds that people with herpes should avoid sex during outbreaks to prevent spreading their infection.

What To Do

Learn more about herpes from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The American Herpes Foundation, supported by drug companies, has information for doctors.

SOURCES: Michael Horberg, M.D., medical director, HIV services, and chairman, Northern California Pharmacy and Therapeutics Committee, Kaiser Permanente Health Plan, Santa Clara, Calif.; Frank Myers, epidemiologist, Scripps Mercy Hospital, San Diego; October 2002 Sexually Transmitted Diseases
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