A new federal report reveals some good news about herpes: fewer Americans are getting the virus. However, nearly half of American adults have the first type of herpes simplex virus.
According to the new findings, released Wednesday by the National Center of Health Statistics (NCHS)—part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—the prevalence of both strains of herpes is down. Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2) can both cause outbreaks of sores. HSV-1 typically causes cold sores on or around the mouth and is often spread by kissing, and HSV-2 can cause genital outbreaks and is spread by sexual intercourse. But it’s now common to get genital herpes from both strains, likely because of oral sex.
“This is an excellent finding, because there’s a clear declining trend,” says report author Geraldine McQuillan, a senior infections disease epidemiologist at NCHS.
The report shows that 48% of Americans ages 14 to 49 have HSV-1, and 12% have HSV-2, according to 2015-2016 data. The fact that nearly half of Americans have HSV-1 may seem like a lot, but it’s actually lower now than it has been in prior years. The report shows that the prevalence of HSV-1 declined from around 59% in 1999–2000. HSV-2 experienced a similar drop, from 18% in 1999–2000.
When people get herpes, they are infected for life, so McQuillan says the drop in herpes prevalence among Americans means that there is a decline in new infections. “This is telling us that something really good is happening,” says McQuillan. “This is what you want to see.”
The current report does not offer an explanation for the drop. But McQuillan says that other research groups have speculated that the drop in HSV-1 infections could be due to improved hygiene—like better hand-washing practices, which can reduce the spread of the virus—and the drop in HSV-2 could be due to more people practicing safe sex after the AIDS epidemic.
Every year, about 776,000 people in the United States get new herpes infections, the CDC estimates. There is no cure for the infection, but some medications can relieve symptoms and suppress or shorten outbreaks.