A recent Center for Disease Control (CDC) finding suggests that Herpes Simplex-2 (HSV- 2) rates have remained stable over the past ten years. From 1999-2004, the prevalence rate was 17 percent. Data from 2005-2008 indicates a similar rate of 16.2 percent. Persons who are the most at risk for HSV-2 infection are women (2x the rate of men) and blacks (3x the rate of whites). The good news is that HSV-2 rates have stabilized.
The bad news? Almost half of all black women (48 percent) are infected with the HSV-2 virus.
HSV-2 is a sexually transmitted virus that can be asymptomatic or symptomatic and consists of genital sores. It is not curable but treatable. The lack of visible symptoms or complaints contributes to infected individuals engaging in unprotected sexual behavior. John M. Douglas, Jr., MD. Director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention emphasized that “many individuals are transmitting herpes to others without even knowing it”.
Screening for HSV-2 is available, however current recommendations by the United States Preventive Screening Task Force (USPSTF) are that asymptomatic pregnant women be screened, not asymptomatic adolescents or adults.
The link between HSV-2 and HIV infection also has implications for black women. Persons infected with HSV-2 are more likely to transmit HIV. Blacks make up 13 percent of the US population and account for 46 percent of those living with HIV.
Preventing transmission is critical. Black women must either wear female condoms or insist that their partners wear condoms.
Pregnant black women should make sure that they are screened for HSV-2 and be aware of their results. The goal is not to expose the newborn during childbirth where contact can occur through the vaginal canal.
Effective prevention tips are to avoid sexual activity when one has genital sores or an outbreak, although many folks may not be aware that are infectious. Limiting sexual partners may reduce risk.
This recent report of black women having higher rates of HSV-2, a sexually transmitted disease and an example of a preventable health care disparity is sobering.
More work must be done to inform and encourage safe sex practices in black women.