Categories Herpes

How Many People Get Herpes Simplex?

Herpes simplex is one of the commonest viral infections known to humanity. Serological (blood) studies in urban populations suggest that approximately 95 per cent of adults have past infection with HSV. As we get older the likelihood of being exposed increases and infection is virtually universal in human populations – in elderly people the incidence of HSV antibody indicating previous infection is almost 100 per cent.

Just as we can expect to get at least one cold in our lives, infection with the herpes simplex virus is a matter of course.

About Herpes Simplex

The herpes virus has been around for hundreds of years – there are several references to it in texts dating back to the ancient world. The word ‘herpes’ is itself Greek for ’snake’, reflecting the way in which it can curl up inside the body and then reappear later. Hippocrates wrote about the occurrence of labial herpes and the Roman Emperor Tiberius banned kissing at one time when there was an outbreak of ‘lip sores’. Then, in 1736, the French physician Jean Astruc described genital herpes for the first time.

Although it was known about, the herpes simplex virus did not actually receive much attention until quite recently. Then, in the 1980s, it suddenly became somewhat of a media star. Many people read about it for the first time in newspapers and magazine, where it was hyped as an epidemic and a major threat to public health. This sensationalism had a tremendous effect on the reported incidence of the virus. And although much of this hype has now died down, unfortunately a considerable number of people still believe past reports, many of which were based largely on rumors. We now hear comparatively little of the virus, which may be partly due to the fat that HIV and AIDS have come to prominence and necessarily, being so serious, have taken precedence as major health threats.

Incidence of Oral herpes Simplex

Most infections with HSV1 occur during childhood – one cold sore which clears up within a week and is then promptly forgotten about is all it takes to have antibodies to herpes simplex. Some people who get only a small cold sore do not even realize they have the infection because the symptoms are so mild.

With this in mind, it is obviously impossible to calculate the number of people with oral herpes simplex at any one time, especially as most people will not even consult a doctor but will wait for cold sore to go away of their own accord. Others will seek the help of a pharmacist and over-the-counter medication. Often it is only when there are regular recurrent sores around the mouth that a person will seek help.

However, for what it is worth the researcher J.C. Overall estimated in 1984 that there were half a million cases of cold sores each year in the US and that there were 98 million infected individuals at any one time. On this basis it is thought that the number of infected individuals world-wire would probably run into the hundreds of millions.

Increase In Genital Herpes?

Whereas the majority of oral herpes infections occur in childhood, genital herpes generally does not occur until the onset of sexual activity. During the 1980s the number of cases of genital herpes was thought to be increasing at a dramatic rate. In the UK sexually transmitted disease clinics started recording it along with other conditions such as thrush and chlamydia in 1972, when 4,500 cases were reported. By 1984 the number of cases reported had risen to 19,869. However, in proportion to the increased number of people attending clinics, there is no significant increase in the rate of infection with herpes simplex.

At this time reports in the media world-wide described the virus as a highly-contagious, dangerous epidemic and thousands of people became very concerned about herpes simplex for the first time. Many of these media reports are now considered inaccurate. To call the herpes simplex virus an epidemic is misleading anyway because this implies that it affects a community a certain time, when we know that the herpes simplex virus is actually endemic, meaning it will always be around. It is the equivalent of saying that there is currently an epidemic of the common cold, which is of course nonsense. When the figures are examined more closely, it also appears they may not have actually presented the true picture and that the hype itself may have played a part in the apparent increase of reported cases.

Record Attendance at Clinics

In response to the massive publicity that surrounded herpes simplex in the 1980s, record numbers of people attended clinics. It was almost as if a ‘new’ disease had been discovered and, naturally, people were concerned that they might be infected. The published figures accounted for people who attended a genito-urinary clinic with symptoms of genital herpes. Prior to this, many people may have had symptoms but did not recognize them as genital herpes and thus remained diagnosed. The widespread publicity was beneficial in that it encouraged more people to attend clinics where they could be diagnosed for genital herpes as well as other sexually transmitted diseases – unfortunately it also resulted in widespread misconceptions about the herpes virus.

In Britain, the figures published in 1984 counted each person who went to a clinic – whether it was for the first time for a recurrent infection – as a new, separate case. The Herpes Association in the UK carried out a survey which showed that their members made an average of six repeat visits to a clinic. Each of these visits would thus have been counted as new case; if this anything to go by, it tell us that the actual number of new cases was most likely much smaller than reported. The method of counting each visit to the clinic as new case ended in Britain in 1988.

Anther good reason for people to start suddenly attending clinics was the fact that in the early 1980s antiviral drugs that promised to relieve the symptoms of herpes simplex infections became available for the first time. This attracted people in droves to clinics, not just to be diagnosed but to return time and time again for prescriptions. Previously, when no treatment had been available, there was little incentive to attend a clinic and most people had to simply ‘wait to’ the symptoms.

Steady Numbers

After the peak in 1984, the number of cases of genital herpes started to drop over the next few years. This has been followed by a rise more recently, but in general it is thought that the numbers of new cases of genital herpes remain fairly steady. In Britain women showed an increase in case numbers for genital herpes between 1988 and 1989 and there was little chance in new cases in 1990.

Until recently, there were no accurate figures available in the US for numbers of people infected with genital herpes; estimates have ranged anywhere between 2 and 20 million,. According to the US Center for Disease Control there are between 300,000 and 500,000 new cases in the US per annum. There figures are not considered to be terribly reliable, however, because they are based on a survey if a small number of STD clinics which do not accurately represent the whole population.

More recent investigations estimate that the annual incidence of clinically apparent infections of genital herpes in the US is about 50 per 100,00 adults. Epidemiological investigations, which are base don detecting antibodies to the virus in people who may or may not have symptoms, suggest that the figures could be higher still. It is though that many more infected people remain undiagnosed because they do not recognize the symptoms of genital herpes.

Now that test are available that differentiate between the two types of herpes simple (i.e. HSV1 and HSV2), it is possible to estimate how many people have antibodies to HSV2, which is thought to be the main cause of genital herpes. Previously it had been possible only to estimate how many people had herpes simplex virus in general. On this basis, research now shows that 16 to 33 percent of Americans have antibodies to HSV2.

Who Gets Herpes Simplex and When?

Infection from oral herpes is more common in children. By the time we reach adulthood, most people already have antibodies to herpes simplex type 1. At one time it was thought that the rate of infection across populations differed according to socio-economic status – crowded conditions and close personal contact were thought to be responsible for increased rates of infection. However, other studies do not agree with this. American researchers investigating the levels of antibodies for HSV2 in women found that 17 per cent of a group of 1,891 predominantly Hispanic women or lower socio-economic class tested seropositive for HSV2, compared to more than 30 per cent of 360 women with upper-middle-class incomes.

Genital infections caused by HSV generally start once sexual activity has begun. Most people with their first signs of genital herpes are between the ages of 18 and 36, and the highest incidence among women occurs at 20 to 24 years of age, at which time it is estimated to affect 210 women per 100,000.

Herpes Simplex Risk Factors

Once sexual activity has begun, the risk factors for genital herpes – such as having multiple partners or a partner who has had multiple partners, or starting sexual activity at any early age 0 are very much the same as for other sexually transmitted diseases.

However, it is possible for a person to have symptoms of genital herpes for the first time when he or she has been in a long-term monogamous relationship where neither partner has been unfaithful. It may be that such people have had the virus for some time but have not noticed it and then something triggers an obvious recurrence or through asymptomatic shedding the partner becomes infected. It is also possible to become infected with genital herpes through oral sex when the other person has a cold sore. Learn more about what are herpes |

About the author

Alexander Pommett is a dating and relationship expert who enjoys blogging. I’m the author, researcher, and publisher of this website. Coming in at over 100 posts, this is no longer the “little project” I had in mind when I first started.