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Genital herpes — herpes simplex virus type two (HSV-2) — is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the United States, with as many as one million people in the United States becoming infected each year. While genital herpes continues to spread across all social, economic, racial and ethnic boundaries, prevalence of infection increased most dramatically in teens and young adults in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Fleming, 1997). The disease is potentially fatal in newborns and can be particularly severe in people with HIV infection.

Symptoms of herpes — recurrent painful ulcers — can be treated, but the infection cannot be cured. Most people with herpes have no symptoms and are unaware of their infection. In a national house-hold survey, less than 10 percent of people who tested positive with herpes knew they were infected (Fleming, 1997). With or without visible symptoms, the disease can be transmitted between sex partners, from mothers to newborns, and can increase a person’s risk of becoming infected with HIV. Genital herpes can also make HIV-infected individuals more infectious and is believed to play a role in the heterosexual spread of HIV in the United States. Preventing the spread of herpes may help slow both epidemics.

> More than one in five Americans — 45 million people — are infected with genital herpes (Fleming, 1997).

> From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, herpes prevalence increased 30 percent (Fleming, 1997).

> Preliminary 1999 data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) suggest that the prevalence of hsv-2 has remained relatively stable over the 1990s. In 1999, the estimated prevalence was 19 percent among the general U.S. population ages 14 to 49 years old (McQuillan, 2000).

Herpes is more common in women than men, infecting approximately one out of four women, versus one out of five men. This difference in gender may be because male-to-female transmission is more efficient than transmission from females to males.

Herpes is common in all regions of the country and in both urban and rural areas. There are no significant differences in prevalence by geographic location.

The percent of people infected with herpes increases with age because, once infected, people remain infected with this incurable disease throughout their lives. Herpes infection is believed to be acquired most commonly during adolescence and young adulthood, as individuals become sexually active and may have multiple partners.

According to two national surveys between the 1970s and the 1990s, genital herpes increased fastest among white teens ages 12 to 19 years old (Fleming, 1997). Herpes prevalence among white teens ages 12 to 19 years old in the 1990s was five times greater than the prevalence in the 1970s. Among young white adults 20 to 29 years of age, herpes prevalence increased two-fold over that period.

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If you think you may have a sexually transmitted disease, you should see a physician immediately to be properly diagnosed and treated. You should not try to diagnose or treat symptoms on your own.

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