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Is Routine Herpes Screening Necessary?

September 22, 2016

One out of every six people between the ages of 14 to 49 have genital herpes, but a government panel is set to recommend that adolescents, adults and pregnant women not get tested for the virus if they don’t have visible symptoms.

In a recent press release, The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said that it doesn’t recommend blood tests to screen for genital herpes, a sexually transmitted infection characterized by flare-ups of small, painful fluid-filled blisters.

“While genital herpes is relatively common, testing is not generally helpful for people who have not experienced symptoms, in part because the tests are often inaccurate,” said task force member Dr. Maureen G. Phipps in the announcement. “Further, because there’s no cure, there isn’t much doctors and nurses can do for people who don’t have symptoms.”

The task force instead urges people to be aware of the signs and symptoms of the virus and to talk to their doctor if they have concerns. Pregnant women, especially, should take these precautions. Doing so could reduce the risk that the virus will be transmitted to their newborn during birth. Though the task force has suggested no screening for those who don’t have genital herpes symptoms, it still recommends screening for other sexually transmitted infections, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and HIV. Health professionals also should counsel at-risk patients about ways to reduce their risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection, the task force says.

Herpes is incurable, so while early detection can help us manage the virus’s symptoms, there’s nothing we can do to make it go away. From this perspective, asking someone to undergo a blood test isn’t really that helpful, especially when you consider the potential inaccuracy of these tests.

Unfortunately, herpes is a lot more common than most people think. An estimated 3.7 billion people worldwide have the virus, and according to the World Health Organization, two-thirds of the world’s population under 50 now have some form of herpes after contracting it as a child.

Though herpes blisters typically occur in the genital area, they can spread to the butt and thighs and sometimes the mouth, face or eyes. The virus spreads from person-to-person via direct contact with an infected person through oral, anal or vaginal sex. To reduce your risk of contracting the virus, always practice safe sex using a condom. If you or your partner already has genital herpes, then it’s best to limit sexual contact during flare-ups (but even when blisters or symptoms aren’t visible, you should be cautious). Also limit sharing utensils or other items that can lead to oral transmission of the virus.

As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so practice safe sex to reduce your risk. 


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