Behind the Herpes Numbers

The CDC report last month that nearly half of black women carried the virus caused a huge uproar. Here's why those statistics are so high and why they also may be misleading.

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The current herpes statistics were based on a group of 893 African-American women, but the 48 percent number has been misinterpreted in most reports. "These women were only tested for antibodies to the HSV-2 virus," explains Dr. David Malebranche, an assistant professor at Emory whose research focuses on STDs in African Americans. "This means that they have been exposed to the herpes virus, but it does not mean that these women have actually developed the disease or have active herpes. In fact, they may never develop active herpes."

"The numbers are consistent with other STD studies that include African Americans," explained Dr. Charlotte Gaydos, co-director of the International Sexually Transmitted Diseases Research Laboratory at Johns Hopkins.

The issue that's often lost in this discussion is that the NHANES and other studies may be the best research we have, but in this case, is the "best" good enough?

Sex by the Numbers

Douglas and other experts say the numbers have very little to do with high-risk sexual behavior. "STDs are shared among people in sexual networks," explains Dr. Irene Doherty, who is part of a team of researchers at the University of North Carolina who explore how STDs spread. "The theory of sexual networks is simple: It's not what you do; it's what your partners do and what your partner's partners do. Our data shows that black women do not have more sex or more high-risk sex than other women. It's fairly well-established that they select partners from a small pool that has a high rate of STDs."

The million-dollar question, of course, is why are there so many STDs in the African-American pool? Many researchers blame concurrency, or people having several sexual partners at once. Dr. Anthony Lemelle, a sociologist who focuses on HIV/AIDS and African Americans, suggests that attitudes about sex play a role as well. "My theory is that in the college years, even middle-class African-American women may have multiple partners because they are searching for that one, long-term relationship. Once they are in their 30s, they marry or become religious and this behavior changes," he said. "In the older group," explains Lemelle, the author of Black Masculinity and Sexual Politics (Routledge, 2010). "it is the men, often married heads of households that are out there. That's where we see all of this sexual activity. It's an important part of manhood and black men go about it more aggressively than men of other races."

Still, brothers who hit on women are nothing new and, Malebranche notes, it certainly happens among white men as well, so what's really going on here? A study by well-respected researcher Dr. Adaora Adimora, reports that "sharply contrasting social contexts in the sexual networks of blacks and whites ... such as poverty, illicit drug use in black communities, incarceration rates, along with the sex ratio of men to women," create these disparities. A solid point, perhaps, but many researchers think that even well-intended studies may be missing the mark.

Where Statistics Fail

Several African-American scholars, and other scientists, express concern about how research--even the highest quality research--is conducted when it comes to African Americans. In short, where are the millions of middle-class African Americans who are not living in poverty, using drugs or incarcerated in these numbers?

Dr. Velma Murry, a sociologist at Vanderbilt who studies the black middle class, found, for instance, that "adolescent, middle-class, African-American girls delayed having sex two years beyond the national average," a contradiction of other national reports. "When we look at research, middle-class African Americans are almost excluded," Murry said. "Most research looks at middle-class whites and low-income African Americans. Then the two are compared and a disparity is reported. But there are far more differences within racial groups than between racial groups, so it's very important to know who is in a study and how they were identified."