Cases of genital herpes diagnosed on campus spiked this month, with a total of eight new cases of the sexually transmitted disease already reported just over halfway through November. The usual average is just one to two cases per month, according to Director of Women’s Health Elizabeth Hirsh.
The herpes simplex virus, which causes genital herpes, is contracted through genital intercourse, genital-oral intercourse or exchange of saliva and is characterized by “outbreaks” involving painful lesions or sores on the mouth or genital area.
The simplest and most direct explanation for the jump in numbers is the growing national prevalence of Herpes, Hirsh said.
Another possible explanation for the increase in HSV diagnoses is the apparent correlation between physical outbreaks of the virus and stress, Hirsh said, noting that November is midterm month.
Sexual Assault and Awareness Program Coordinator Abby Tassel said that the rise may also be due to increased testing, indicating a higher level of student awareness regarding the importance of STD screening.
Hirsh added that an infected person could transmit the disease even if he or she is not having an outbreak, is using a condom or is using suppressive medication.
Herpes is particularly tricky because condoms do not prevent the “shedding” of tissue outside its limits, and because testing for the virus can be inconclusive, Hirsh said. She explained that the only way to get a fool-proof test is to take a sample from an actual lesion or sore.
A person may also have HSV and be transmitting the disease, but may never have an outbreak and therefore never become aware of his or her positive status, Hirsh said.
Herpes is incurable, but antiviral medication can suppress outbreaks. But Hirsh stressed that such treatments do not prevent transmission.
There are two types of the virus that caues herpes, HSV-1 and HSV-2. Both types can cause outbreaks in the mouth or genital area, but HSV-1 is generally thought of as less severe, Hirsh said.
The National Center for Disease Control web site states that 45 million Americans ages twelve and older — 20 percent of the U.S. population — have been diagnosed with HSV-2.
Hirsh added that as many as 85 percent of the national population may be infected, the other 65 percent unaware of the infection. “This is the tip of the iceberg,” she said
Because most people are unclear on how the virus is transmitted and unaware that testing methods are periodically inaccurate, many students are “shocked when diagnosed,” according to Hirsh.
“Mostly it’s an awareness issue,” she said. She cited “selectivity about partners” as the best defense, especially given the uncertainty of using condoms.
Hirsh encouraged people to get tested only if they see physical signs of the disease, explaining that a recently infected person will not yet show antibodies.
Due to most students’ limited knowledge about STDs and prevention, the SAAP program is currently looking into ways to further educate the student body on the subject.
STD education “feels like something we need to do more work on,” Tassel said, explaining that while most understand the importance of using condoms, students often are unfamiliar with the failings of this form of protection.
Hirsh discounted the theory that one particular class may be responsible for the increase, saying that there is “no class breakdown at all.”