WHO Report: There’s a 67% Chance You Have Herpes (and you may not even know it)

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HerpesA new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals a startling statistic: more than 3.7 billion people under the age of 50—which is 67% of the global population—have herpes. Specifically, they are all carriers of the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), a lifelong and currently incurable disease.

Herpes has two types: HSV-1 is the variant most commonly associated with oral cold sores and HSV-2 is responsible for most cases of genital herpes, as it relies almost exclusively on sexual transmission.

The study was conducted by pooling herpes incident data from six WHO regions: the Americas, Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, Europe, South-East Asia, and the Western Pacific. Global population numbers from 2012 were used to determine overall prevalence. The new and current infection findings by region are as follows:

  • America: 178 million women (49% of all women in the region) and 142 million men (39% of all men in the region) are living with herpes, with 11 million new cases each year
  • Africa: 350 million women (87%) and 355 million men (87%) have herpes, with 35 million new cases each year
  • Eastern Mediterranean: 188 million women (75%) and 202 million men (75%) have herpes, with 13 million new cases each year
  • Europe: 207 million women (69%) and 187 million men (61%) have herpes, with 10 million new cases each year
  • South-East Asia: 432 million women (59%) and 458 million men (58%) have herpes, with 27 million new cases each year
  • Western Pacific: 488 million women (74%) and 521 million men (73%) have herpes, with 23 million new cases each year

Additionally, the study estimates that approximately 417 million people between the ages of 15 and 49 have HSV-2 infections, with more than half a billion genital infections in this age range being caused by either of the two herpes types. Childhood herpes infections are becoming less prevalent in wealthier countries due to improved hygienic practices and living conditions, but this means an increased risk of contracting herpes as the child ages and becomes sexually active.

It is important to note that this study tracks herpes carriers rather than those who are symptomatic. Not everyone who carries HSV-1 will develop symptoms and in some cases, presentation is mild enough that the condition is not recognized as herpes.

HSV-1 primarily presents as a series of small, red, sore blisters around the lip or mouth that can leak a clear fluid. In cases of genital herpes, painful urination can also occur. Both forms can cause itchiness. Other than potential embarrassment or anxiety, the most severe symptom of herpes is usually a fever. In individuals with weaker immune systems, outbreaks can become more aggressive. Rarely, HSV-1 can result in serious complications like encephalitis or an eye infection called herpes keratitis.

The WHO’s global strategy for combating sexually transmitted infections, including HSV-1 and HSV-2, will be finalized and presented for consideration at the 69th World Health Assembly in 2016.

Sources for Today’s Article:
“Globally, an Estimated Two-thirds of the Population under 50 Are Infected with Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1,” World Health Organization web site, October 28, 2015; http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/herpes/en/.
Looker, K.J., et al., “Global and Regional Estimates of Prevalent and Incident Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 Infections in 2012,” PLOS One 2015, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0140765.