Consistent Condom Use Can Reduce Risk of Herpes by 30 Percent
Practicing safe sex is one of the best preventative health measures a person can take, and the best form of safe sex, outside of abstinence, is the condom. Not only do condoms safeguard against unwanted pregnancies, they also protect against infection from various sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as HIV, gonorrhea, Chlamydia and trichomoniasis; discharge diseases that are transmitted through infected semen or vaginal fluids. However, researchers say condoms provide a lesser degree of protection against the spread of another STD—genital herpes—because it can be transmitted through contact with infected skin that isn’t covered or protected by the condom, but the exact protective effect has remained unclear.
To get a more definitive idea of how useful condoms are in preventing herpes, researchers at the University of Washington analyzed data on a total of 5,384 people; two-thirds of whom were male, 94 percent were heterosexual. All study participants were free of infection when the studies began, but over a follow-up period of 12 to 19 months, 415 became infected with the herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2), the virus that most often causes genital herpes. For those who reported using a condom 100 percent of the time, the risk of contracting the virus was found to be 30 percent less than those who did not use condoms. “Although the magnitude of the protective effect was not as large as has been observed with other STIs, a 30 percent reduction in HSV-2 incidence can have a substantial benefit for individuals as well as a public health impact at the population level,” said lead author Dr. Emily T. Martin of Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the University. “Thirty percent is partial protection, but its protection.”
The researchers said the risk of being infected was reduced 7 percent “every additional 25 percent of the time condoms were used during anal or vaginal sex” and increased with the frequency of unprotected sex. There was no significant difference in condom effectiveness between genders. “It’s the consistent use of the condom that’s important,” Martin said. “If you don’t know the STD status of your partner, a condom is always a good idea.”
Dr. Jeffrey D. Klausner, director of STD Prevention and Control Services at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said the study provides more scientific evidence that condoms work. “We know condoms can prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections like HIV, herpes, warts, hepatitis, gonorrhea, Chlamydia and syphilis, but it’s always been hard to show that in research studies,” he said. “If condoms can hold air and water, I never understood why folks thought they would not prevent the spread of germs, which are much, much larger than air or water molecules.” Klausner added that these findings should help in efforts to get condoms into the hands of sexually active adults and teens.
As many as 50 million Americans—about one in five adults—are infected with the genital herpes virus, with about one million new infections each year. As many as 80-90 percent of those infected fail to recognize herpes symptoms or have no symptoms at all. People with herpes may spread the disease even though they don’t realize they have an infection or while their disease appears to be inactive and no sores can be seen. Herpes is a lifelong disease with no cure, but antiviral drugs can partially control the duration and severity of episodes.