The Story Behind the Alarming Herpes Numbers

A report that nearly half of black women are infected is less about conspiracy and more a reflection of the shortage of black men.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's announcement that nearly half of African-American women are infected with herpes has prompted reactions from panic and shock to outrage and disbelief. The study finds that women and blacks were most likely to be infected. The prevalence of herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2) was nearly twice as high among women (20.9 percent) than men (11.5 percent), and was more than three times higher among blacks (39.2 percent) than whites (12.3 percent). The most affected group was black women, with a prevalence rate of 48 percent.

The CDC collected the data as part of National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey culled from a two-part survey made up of a home interview and a health examination. The survey is designed to gather information not just about sexually transmitted diseases but on a broad range of health and nutrition issues of the U.S. household population. And the data carries a lot of weight. It has been used to influence policy like getting lead removed from gasoline and establishing national baseline estimates for cholesterol, blood pressure and Hepatitis C in the United States.

Based on the study, the higher rates of infection for African-American women are not due to increased risky behavior like having sex with drug users. However, where you live and whom you choose as sexual partners has a tremendous impact on your risk for STDs.

According to researchers, it's basically a numbers game. Women outnumber men in the general population, and the numbers are more sharply skewed among African Americans. We've all been bombarded with articles about the shortage of available black men and the high rate of black women (41 percent) who have never been married. This unbalanced dynamic can lead to people having multiple sexual partners, and in the United States, the frequency of overlapping relationships is higher among blacks than whites.

In addition to socioeconomic factors, women are at a greater risk simply because of anatomy. Genital tissue around the vagina is more susceptible to small tears during penetration making it easier to transmit STDs. The majority of infections might not occur just through women having sex with bisexual men but as likely via women transmitting it to heterosexual partners.

The fallout is that infection spreads through a sexual network faster. "A high prevalence of infection in the pool of potential partners can spread sexually transmitted infections rapidly within the ethnic group and keep it there," said Dr. Adaora A. Adimora, an infectious disease physician and associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill.

How do you protect yourself from getting herpes? Clearly, the first line of defense is prevention. Herpes simplex is highly contagious while lesions are present, so the key to avoiding infection or to not spreading infection is to abstain from sexual activity if you or your partner is experiencing an outbreak. Also always use a latex condom during each sexual contact. This decreases the risk of transmission, but it doesn't prevent it. Sores can occur all over the genital area.

If you have herpes, medications like antiviral drugs can reduce the duration, severity and frequency of outbreaks, and help reduce the risk of transmission to a partner. Your doctor may recommend that you take the medicine only when you're experiencing symptoms or may advise that you take a medicine daily. Suppression medication therapy is not a cure, but it can make it easier to live with the condition.

Scary numbers and another health "epidemic" in the black community; so what's the takeaway from the survey? Obviously, there are no simple explanations, and statistics can be misleading. Whatever your views are on the issue, why not have a discussion? It's a serious issue that warrants a closer look. We need to openly address the problem without additional judgments or finger-pointing and try to uncover the facts. The stakes are too high for us to dismiss the report. Arming yourself with knowledge and a few condoms may save you from an STD. It may even save your life.

Alicia Villarosa is a regular contributor to The Root.

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