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On Tuesday, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one in six Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 are infected with herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).
HSV-2, or genital herpes, is highly contagious and is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S. Once a patient has contracted genital herpes, the infection will last a lifetime, resulting in spontaneous outbreaks of painful, watery blisters.
After contracting the infection, the first outbreak often occurs within two weeks. The sores are frequently accompanied by a variety of whole-body symptoms, which include decreased appetite, fever and muscle aches. Following the initial outbreak, HSV-2 can remain dormant for extended periods of time before returning. Attacks can recur as often as once a week, and as seldom as once per year.
Although genital herpes cannot be cured, antiviral medications have been developed to help relieve pain and discomfort during an outbreak.
The CDC's new findings on genital herpes, which were recently presented at the 2010 National STD Prevention Conference, indicate that the prevalence of the virus has remained stable over the past four years, affecting about 17 percent of the population, according to Health Day News.
"This stabilization in herpes rates follows a period of declining prevalence, down from 21 percent for the years 1988 to 1994," said the study's lead author, La'Shan Taylor, an officer with the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service.
Approximately 19 million people in the U.S. are currently infected with genital herpes, resulting in nearly $16 billion worth of healthcare services each year, WebMD reports.
The report also indicated that women and African Americans are at an elevated risk of contracting the virus. Genital herpes rates were nearly twice as high among women compared to men, and more than three times higher among African-Americans than whites. The researchers were shocked to find that 48 percent of black women are infected with HSV-2.
"This latest analysis emphasizes that we can't afford to be complacent about this infection," said John Douglas, director of the CDC's Division of STD Prevention.
"It is important that we promote steps to prevent the spread of genital herpes, not only because herpes is a lifelong and incurable infection, but also because of the linkage between herpes and HIV infection," he added.
Meanwhile, just days before the CDC revealed their new findings, a research and development company released a new genetic screening test designed to help physicians assess an infected patient's risk of developing frequent outbreaks.
The new screening technology, known as the Herpes DX Genetic Test for Frequent Genital Herpes, is capable of detecting the presence or absence of mutations in the mannose-binding lectin (MBL) gene, which plays a specific role in the body's immune response to HSV-2. A patient who tests positive has an 80 percent chance of suffering frequent outbreaks, while those who test negative have the same likelihood of not developing regular outbreaks.
"Until now, physicians have been unable to give patients an answer to the most common question asked by recently infected Genital Herpes patients: 'Will I have frequent outbreaks?,'" said Andy Goren, CEO of DermaGenoma, the company that developed the technology. "Using the HerpesDX genetic test, a doctor can finally assess a patient's risk for frequent outbreaks."
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