On December 1st of each year,World AIDS Day throws a temporary but albeit meaningful spotlight on the disproportionate number of African-Americans affected by HIV and AIDS.
Yet, on the heels of the annual upsurge in awareness efforts and newly researched statistics, the connection between genital herpes and HIV remains understated and overlooked. Unfortunately, it’s an important one.
Aside from both conditions affecting black women in large numbers and creating instances of hysteria, the two are even more closely related.
“If a person has genital herpes due to the herpes type 2 virus, their risk of acquiring HIV is much higher than if they didn’t have herpes. And a person who has both HIV and herpes 2 is more likely to transmit both infections,” said Dr. Peter Leone, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and Public Health, in an interview with the New York Times.
Much like HIV, it is not easy to tell if someone is infected with herpes. Some people never develop blisters, but still pass the virus to others. This likely contributes to the data that one in six Americans presently carries at least one strain of herpes, some unknowingly.
At times, the symptoms can be vague – such as itching or redness – and at other times, no symptoms at all. Condoms don’t necessarily thwart transmission since it’s contracted from skin to skin contact, not through semen or bodily fluids.
Two years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created a firestorm when it publicized that nearly half of all black women were infected with herpes. That figure had been high since the prior national estimate, which examined the period between 1999 and 2004. However, with respect to the HIV pandemic, it is becoming more relevant.
During a mild outbreak, genital herpes can still cause tiny cracks in the skin or mucous membranes. The vulnerability of those compromised areas makes contact with HIV more risky because the virus has a way in. Thus, it makes sense that these women could be more susceptible to becoming infected with HIV.
Dr. Adaora Adimora, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s Center for Infectious Diseases, is in favor of making herpes testing part of standard medical procedure to control its continued spread and to squelch the potential health risks.
“It’s important,” she told NPR, “because of the illness it causes for people with it, and the fact that it can be transmitted from mother to child during childbirth, and the very important fact that it facilitates HIV infection.”
However, widespread herpes testing is controversial. It is currently only recommended for certain groups of people – for example, high risk patients or patients with symptoms.
The blood test checks for immune system cells that fight against herpes virus 1 (the cold sore virus) and herpes virus 2. However, if positive, it could mean the person was simply exposed to herpes, not that he or she has outbreaks or is infectious.
Another way to diagnose herpes is to take a sample from an active blister or sore. However, this is different than the widespread type of testing that Dr. Adimora supports as the person already has symptoms.
Mandatory HIV testing, on the other hand, has already picked up an increasing amount of support. Last month, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended every American between the ages of 15 and 65 be tested for the virus, regardless of personal history, sexual activity or orientation.
At this time, there are is no such consensus on mandatory herpes virus testing.