If you're under 50 years old and live on the planet Earth, there's a very good chance you have herpes, according to the World Health Organization, which released its first assessment of the global prevalence of the virus on Wednesday.
Two-thirds of the world's population under 50 — more than 3.7 billion people — have contracted the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) that causes cold sores around the mouth. An additional 417 million people between the ages of 15 and 49 have the second strain of the virus, HSV-2, which causes painful, recurrent genital ulcers.
Before you breathe a sigh of relief about the cold sore variety, you should know that while HSV-1 is usually limited to the mouth it can also be spread to the genitals. And you should know that this is increasingly occurring to people in wealthier countries.
The WHO says this is because improved hygiene in rich countries is lowering HSV-1 infection rates in childhood — when most people catch it — leaving young people more at risk of catching it from oral sex later on when they become sexually active.
The HSV-2 strain of herpes also increases the risk of catching and spreading HIV, which causes AIDS. The virus may account for transmissions in up to 60 percent of new HIV cases in high HSV-2 prevalent populations, according to the WHO. Not much is known about the link between HSV-1 and HIV/AIDS, although people with weakened immune systems who contract HSV-1 can develop other serious complications such as encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain.
There is no vaccine or cure for herpes, so if you get it, it's for life. What's more, about 90 percent of people who have the HSV-2 strain don't know they have it because doctors rarely screen for it, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Genital herpes is typically asymptomatic, which further facilitates its transmission.
The WHO, the National Institutes of Health in the United States, and various private companies are working to develop a vaccine for the virus, but have yet to come up with one.
"We really need to accelerate the development of vaccines against herpes simplex virus, and if a vaccine designed to prevent HSV-2 infection also prevented HSV-1, it would have far-reaching benefits," said Sami Gottlieb, a WHO medical officer.
There are treatment options for herpes symptoms, including antiviral drugs like Valtrex, but they do not eliminate or totally prevent future outbreaks.
Gottlieb said that the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline previously abandoned a vaccine trial after finding that the product was not effective against HSV-2, although it did show some efficacy against HSV-1.
"That was interesting and promising, and gave a proof of concept that these vaccines can be developed," she said, adding that several phase-1 and phase-2 trials for vaccines were underway.
This is the second alarming WHO report to come out this week, after it released a statement on Monday saying that processed meat causes cancer and red meat probably does too.
Keep the hits coming, WHO.
Photo via Flickr