There are two forms of the herpes virus- HSV-1 mainly causes cold sores and blisters around the mouth, as opposed to HSV-2, which is almost entirely sexually transmitted and causes genital herpes. A World Health Organization (WHO) report revealed that more than 3.7 billion people under 50 have the highly-infectious and incurable herpes virus that causes sores around the mouth and sometimes on the genitals. The report also suggested that two thirds of the global population under the age of 50 years are infected with the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), which tends to cause cold sores.
A full 87% of Africans under 50 years have the virus which is transmitted by mouth-to-mouth contact or through saliva, as do three quarters of those in the eastern Mediterranean and western Pacific regions. In comparison, only 39% of men and 49% of women in the Americas, and 61% of men and 69% of women in Europe have the virus.
WHO medical officer Sami Gottlieb said, "But new estimates indicate HSV-1 is also an important cause of genital herpes, with some 140 million people between the ages of 15 and 49 infected with a genital variant of HSV-1. HSV-1 has the potential to be transmitted from the oral area to the genital area through oral sex."
Along with the 417 million people believed to have the HSV-2 infection, there are more than half a billion people under 50 years of age who have genital infections caused by the two herpes viruses.
The WHO noted that in high-income countries, fewer children are becoming infected with HSV-1 due to better hygiene and living conditions, but are thus more susceptible to becoming infected with the virus once they become sexually active.
Marleen Temmerman, head of the WHO's reproductive health and research division, said, "Access to education and information on both types of herpes and sexually transmitted infections is critical to protect young people's health before they become sexually active."
Gottlieb said, "The figures were deeply worrying, not only because such infections were uncomfortable but because they could also harm relationships and cause social stigma. HSV-2 infections - even when there are no symptoms - have also been shown to increase the risk of HIV transmission. With no cure available for either herpes virus we really need to accelerate the development of vaccines."