The World Health Organization (WHO) has published the results of its first-ever estimate of the prevalence of herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) throughout the world. HSV-1, the virus that causes cold sores, is thought to infect two-thirds of people under the age of 50 globally – or 3.7 billion people.

How can it be that this great number of people could be infected with HSV-1? Most people likely caught it during childhood and people having the virus in their bodies can be symptom-free – but still able to transmit the virus to others.

This is a video presented by WHO on this topic:

What Is the Prevalence of HSV-1 in the United States?

Data provided by WHO did not specifically break down by individual countries, but the prevalence of HSV1 in the combined Americas was 49 percent for females age 49 and younger; 39 percent for males age 49 and younger. WHO also reported that the prevalence in the presence of the virus in the Americas showed a trend of an increasingly likelihood of being acquired throughout the adult years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States places estimates of the prevalence in the country to be 54 percent, while the National Institute of Health report that approximately 800,000 Americans per year become infected with either of these forms of herpes.

What Is the Importance of Widespread HSV-1 Infection?

Although HSV-1 is most commonly thought of as being the virus that causes cold sores, it can also lead to genital herpes. Both HSV-1 and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) can cause genital herpes. In time past, HSV-2 is the usual culprit behind the genital form of herpes, but HSV-1 has been seen with increasing frequency to be the causative agent.

  • 140 million people worldwide estimated to have HSV-1 genital herpes (age 49 years and younger)

  • 417 million people worldwide estimated to have HSV-2 genital herpes (age 49 years and younger)

One of the main concerns is that a large percentage of people who carry HSV-1 have no symptoms, so they don't realize the need to protect others, including sexual partners, from being exposed to the virus. Unless an outbreak occurs that produces notable symptoms, most people don't realize they carry either form of the virus, which is often detected in the blood.

At present there is no cure for either form of herpes, but there are antiviral medications that can be taken to reduce the severity and length of an outbreak. For now, WHO and other public health officials are working with those who are trying to develop a vaccine to prevent herpes and topical agents to help prevent the spread of the viruses.

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