CDC: Genital Herpes Among Black Women High

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says black women have the highest rates of herpes infection at 48 percent. Nationally, about 16 percent of Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 are infected with genital herpes. Hilda Hutcherson, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University. offers her insight.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Disturbing news, this week, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal agency reported that 48 percent of black women between the ages of 14 and 49 have herpes simplex virus type 2, or HSV 2 as it's called. Overall blacks and women were much more likely to be infected. The prevalence among all women was almost 21 percent compared to 11 percent for all men. Thirty nine percent of blacks were infected, compared with roughly 12 percent of whites.

For more on this, we turn to Dr. Hilda Hutcherson. She is a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University, and she joins us from New York. Welcome, Doctor.

Dr. HILDA HUTCHERSON (Clinical Professor, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Columbia University): Thank you.

NORRIS: What explains the very high rate of infection for women overall but for black women, in particular?

Dr. HUTCHERSON: Well, for all sexually transmitted infections, it's much easier for women to become infected, and that's because our tissues are very delicate. And that makes it easier for bacteria and viruses to then be transmitted to women.

NORRIS: Now that explains the higher rate overall for women, but why is the rate so much higher for African-American women?

Dr. HUTCHERSON: Well, I think what has happened over the years is we have developed this increased incident of this virus. And then once the virus is within your community, it makes it much more easily transmitted and for those numbers to increase for African-American women. So, I think that the way to reverse this, which is what we want to do, is to break that cycle by educating younger people and over time, our overall incidents and prevalence will decrease.

NORRIS: It has been suggested that one factor that might help to explain the high rate among African-American women is the high rate of women who have never been married. Just over 40 percent of black women have never been married, which means that they may over their lifetime have more sexual partners which may make them more vulnerable.

Dr. HUTCHERSON: I don't think that there's any evidence that there's more promiscuous behavior, that we have as significant number of sexual partners over a lifetime. So, I would not agree that that is the case. I do think that what I've seen in my practice is that young women often don't protect themselves in the way that they should protect themselves. I find that there is lot of guilt and shame when it comes to sex and talking about sex.

NORRIS: One of the other things that the CDC found is that many people, 80 percent, don't know that they are infected.

Dr. HUTCHERSON: And that's true. Unfortunately with herpes and some other sexually transmitted infections, there may be no symptoms. And so, people may not be aware. In fact, most people are not aware that they do have the virus. And, of course, if you're not aware that you have it, then you don't practice safe sex then it becomes easy for you to transmit it to someone else.

NORRIS: What are the long-term implications of herpes?

Dr. HUTCHERSON: Well, we know that when you're infected with herpes, you increase the risk that you will get HIV if you have unprotected sex with someone who has that virus as well. And for that reason alone, it is important for us for look at this as a significant public health issue and see what we can do to stop this trend.

NORRIS: Help me understand how your patients react when they learn that they have herpes?

Dr. HUTCHERSON: Women are devastated. I mean, think of this: It is a virus infection. It is a lifelong infection. There's no cure for it. And it is something that's difficult to talk to your partners about.

NORRIS: Dr. Hutcherson, thank you very much for taking time to talk to us.

Dr. HUTCHERSON: It's my pleasure.

NORRIS: That's Dr. Hilda Hutcherson. She is the clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University.

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