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.


The March reports of sky-high levels of the genital herpes virus among black women set off a firestorm of disbelief and recrimination. The numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gave many black women an all-too-familiar feeling: shock, concern and an overwhelming sense of fatigue in the face of yet another study bringing bad news and fear.

African-American men and women often seem to be under siege when it comes to the ongoing flood of research trumpeting our higher rates of nearly everything, including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). No doubt, disparities exist, but in this case, it’s reasonable to take a step back from the anger and take a closer look at what the statistics are really telling us.

The new research should not be seen as an indictment of the sexual behavior of African Americans. The numbers–though startling (48 percent of African-American women have been exposed to the virus that causes genital herpes)–are not so much about sex, as they are about circumstances, and, possibly, the way information is gathered for medical research.

Who Was Counted

STDs, notably HIV/AIDS, are more prevalent among African Americans and more effective modes of prevention are needed. These facts have been reported in a multitude of studies, many conducted by African-American researchers. That said, statistics can reflect many things beyond the simple presence of a virus, which is why they are inappropriate tools for judging the culture or conduct of a race or gender, no matter the source.

In this case, the 2010 herpes data comes from the National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES). This large, national study is designed to report on the health of the American population by gathering information from a randomly selected pool of 5,000 people who are not in the military or an institution.

“It’s a snapshot, a medical assessment that first selects a county, then a neighborhood, then a city block, before choosing individuals who then fill out a survey and are given blood tests to confirm their health status,” explains Dr. John Douglas, the director of the division of STD Prevention at the National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention at the CDC.

While regular folks are often shocked that just 5,000 people are the basis for a good deal of what the CDC reports, Douglas concedes that the scientifically sound, multi-stage process is difficult to explain to the public. But the study has been the CDC’s monitor of our national rates of obesity, heart disease and many of health issues since 1970.

“African Americans are also oversampled to make the study more representative,” Douglas said, meaning that larger numbers of blacks are included in the data than their percentage in the population.

What the Numbers Really Mean

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.”