March 22, 2000 02:02pm
Study Disproves Myths About Herpes
by: Linda Johnson
People infected with genital herpes can spread it even between flare-ups, when they have no symptoms, new research suggests.
Up until recently, patients and even most doctors thought people with herpes could safely have unprotected sex when they had no symptoms, which can include painful, oozing blisters, ulcers and fissures and tingling and burning. Most doctors advised patients to abstain from sex during flare-ups, but some said sex with a condom was OK.
In a study disproving some myths about the incurable, widespread virus, University of Washington researchers found the virus present in genital secretions even when patients didn't notice any symptoms.
``The message from this study is first to encourage people who might be at risk for genital herpes to be tested and, No. 2, they should abstain during outbreaks and use condoms at all other times,'' said Dr. Anna Wald, an assistant professor in the department of medicine and epidemiology.
The study was reported in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.
Genital herpes, usually caused by the herpes simplex virus type 2, lurks in about one-fourth of U.S. adults, although only an estimated 20 percent of them know it.
Herpes is spread through sexual contact when it enters the body through tiny passages in the skin. The virus lies dormant in nerves at the base of the spinal cord until something triggers an outbreak. Flare-ups generally last for a few days.
There is no cure, but drugs can reduce the severity and frequency of flare-ups.
While herpes isn't fatal, the sores can make it easier to become infected with the AIDS virus. Without precautions, herpes can be transmitted during childbirth, infecting the baby and sometimes causing brain damage or death.
Wald's team studied 53 men and women who were unaware they had the virus until it was spotted in a blood test on a routine visit to a medical clinic in Seattle. Those patients were then asked to participate in the study, along with another 90 clinic patients with a history of symptoms.
Each swabbed specimens from around the anus and genitals daily for three months and kept a diary of symptoms.
But both groups had the virus present in secretions at the same rate on symptom-free days: about 3 percent, or one day a month on average.
The researchers also found that men were potentially infectious at the same rate as women when no symptoms were noticeable, disproving the myth men can't spread the virus while symptom-free.
Dr. Judith Wasserheit, head of sexually transmitted disease prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the study confirms other research but brings some good news: ``It is possible to learn how to recognize many of your symptoms and to use that knowledge to help protect your partner.''