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Condoms Lower the Risk for Genital Herpes

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An analysis of data from several studies looking at HSV-2 and condom use finds that safer sex is highly protective against the acquisition of genital herpes.

Researchers from the University of Washington and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at data from six studies where subjects were evaluated periodically for HSV-2 (including at enrollment) and also self-reported on sexual activity and condom use.

The analysis was done using a “case-crossover” method where, instead of simply comparing rates of HSV-2 acquisition among different subjects where some used condoms while others did not, they looked only at data from individuals who acquired HSV-2 during the studies.

191 subjects became positive for HSV-2 during the course of the six studies, and with these subjects the researchers looked at both their condom use and sexual activity during “case” and “control” periods to determine the likelihood of HSV-2 acquisition with protected versus unprotected sex acts.

The odds of acquiring HSV-2 increased 3.6% with each unprotected sex act, but there was no increased HSV-2 risk when condoms were used, which the authors say “Suggests that condoms offer significant protection against HSV-2 transmission.”

Visit ASHA’s Herpes Resource Center for more on HSV prevention and management.

Stanaway J, Wald A, Martin E, Gottlieb S, and Margaret A. Case-crossover analysis of condom use and herpes simplex virus type 2 acquisition. STD, 2012. 39(5):388-393.


How effective are condoms at reducing the risk of herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2)?

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It is widely known that consistent and correct condom use reduces the risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but until recently questions remained about condom’s effectiveness against HSV-2. Results from a recent study led by Emily T. Martin, M.P.H., Ph.D. of Children’s Hospital Research Institute and University of Washington in Seattle, published in Archives of Internal Medicine, now offer evidence that condom use does reduce the risk of transmitting HSV-2.

Martin and her colleagues performed a pooled analysis of six prior studies, including “three HSV-2 vaccine studies, an HSV-2 drug study, a sexually transmitted infection (STI) incidence study and a behavioral STI intervention study.” Study participants were mostly male (66%) and very few reported having a prior STI. Additionally, the majority of participants were white (60.4%), heterosexual (94.1%) with an average age of twenty-nine.

Of the 5,384 participants who tested negative for HSV-2 at the onset of the study, 415 subsequently tested positive for HSV-2 during follow-up. The significant difference between those that became infected during the study and those who did not? Consistent condom use. Indeed, the study found that consistent condom use lowered the risk of acquiring HSV-2 by 30% compared to those not using condoms. As the study authors state, “Risk of HSV-2 acquisition decreased by 7 percent for every additional 25 percent of the time that condoms were used during anal or vaginal sex.”

While the authors note that the effectiveness of condoms at reducing the risk of HSV-2 may not be as great as the protection offered against other STIs and HIV, a lower risk of 30% is significant enough to warrant condom use to reduce the risk of acquiring HSV-2.


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