GENEVA, SWITZERLAND — About half a billion people worldwide are living with genital herpes, and several billion have an oral herpes infection, new estimates show, highlighting the need to improve awareness and scale up services to prevent and treat herpes.
About 13% of the world’s population aged 15 to 49 years were living with herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) infection in 2016, the latest year for which data is available. HSV-2 is almost exclusively sexually transmitted, causing genital herpes. Infection can lead to recurring, often painful, genital sores in up to a third of people infected.
Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) is mainly transmitted by oral to oral contact to cause oral herpes infection – sometimes leading to painful sores in or around the mouth (“cold sores”). However, HSV-1 can also be transmitted to the genital area through oral sex, causing genital herpes.
Around 67% of the world’s population aged 0 to 49 had HSV-1 infection in 2016 – an estimated 3.7 billion people. Most of these infections were oral; however, between 122 million to 192 million people were estimated to have genital HSV-1 infection.
Genital herpes is a substantial health concern worldwide – beyond the potential pain and discomfort suffered by people living with the infection, the associated social consequences can have a profound effect on sexual and reproductive health” says Dr Ian Askew, Director of the Department of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research at the World Health Organization (WHO).
Herpes and HIV
People with HSV-2 infection are at least three times more likely to become infected with HIV, if exposed. Thus, HSV-2 likely plays a substantial role in the spread of HIV globally. Women are more susceptible to both HSV-2 and HIV. Women living in the WHO Africa Region have the highest HSV-2 prevalence and exposure to HIV – putting them at greatest risk of HIV infection.
No cure: vaccine needed
There is no cure for herpes. Antiviral medications, such as acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir, can help to reduce the severity and frequency of symptoms but cannot cure the infection.
Better awareness, improved access to antiviral medications and heightened HIV prevention efforts for those with genital HSV symptoms are needed globally. In addition, development of better treatment and prevention interventions is needed, particularly HSV vaccines.
“A vaccine against HSV infection would not only help to promote and protect the health and well-being of millions of people, particularly women, worldwide – it could also potentially have an impact on slowing the spread of HIV, if developed and provided alongside other HIV prevention strategies” says Dr Meg Doherty, Director of the WHO Department of Global HIV, Hepatitis, and STI Programmes.
Authored by staff at the University of Bristol, the WHO, and Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar, and published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, this new study estimates the global infection prevalence and incidence of HSV-1 and HSV-2 in 2016.