Public Health

Genital Herpes Hits Black Women Hardest

One in six Americans has genital herpes. And among African-Americans and women, the odds are even higher, according to results from a national survey released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday.

Still, the fact that half of African-American women are infected, according to CDC, took us aback. We turned to Dr. Adaora Adimora, a professor at the University of North Carolina's Center for Infectious Diseases, who told Shots "the racial disparity for herpes is actually less than for HIV and other STDs."

And, she emphasized that though these numbers for herpes are high, they have been pretty much stable since the last national estimate, which looked at the period from 1999 to 2004.

While the percentage of Black women is the largest of the infected groups, Adimora said it is important not to overlook the infection rate of almost 17 percent for the entire population. That's high, she said, and needs to change.

"Its important," she explained, "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," she said. "So, since it's a lifelong illness, unlike say gonorrhea, it probably contributes to the high rates of HIV — especially among Blacks in the states."

Adimora said there needs to be better screening processes for genital herpes, which isn't routine. Only a blood test is required, but cost is an issue.

The CDC didn't recommend screening for the general population in its statement this week, but said testing help people "unsure of their status and at high risk for the disease, including those with multiple sex partners, those who are HIV-positive, and gay and bisexual men."

But Adimora would like to see it go a step further. "Given the way the problem is framed and given the high prevalence among everyone in the U.S.," she said, "it would seem completely reasonable to me to screen [everyone] for herpes."

For more on why AfricanAmericans and women — and especially African-American women — are particularly vulnerable, check out Friday's All Things Considered for an interview with Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University.

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