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Transmission of Genital Herpes Possible Without Symptoms

January 31, 1992

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Sexual partners of people with genital herpes have a 10 percent annual risk of infection, even when there are no signs of the disease’s blisters and rashes, a study suggests.

″There is no time when you know it’s safe,″ said the study’s lead author, Dr. Gregory Mertz of the University of New Mexico.

The risk of contracting herpes from a partner without symptoms was not known until now, according to the authors of the study published in Saturday’s Annals of Internal Medicine, based in Philadelphia.

Herpes sufferers don’t usually have sex during their painful outbreaks, so researchers have assumed most transmissions occur just prior to or after the disease flares up.

The infection risk for men was about 6 percent, while the risk for women known not to be infected with the herpes simplex virus was 32 percent, a difference commonly seen in sexually transmitted diseases, according to the study.

A gynecologist at Thomas Jefferson University, Dr. Marty Weisberg, said he was surprised that the study’s figures weren’t higher. ″Many people are responsible and they still transmit it.″

The authors, from the universities of Washington and New Mexico, pointed out that the risk may indeed be higher because the couples in the study were counseled about herpes and sexual contact and were motivated to avoid infection.

The researchers studied the transmission of the herpes virus among 144 heterosexual couples for about a year. Fourteen partners became infected, 11 of them women; information about sexual contact was available only for 13 of the couples. Nine of those transmissions, or about 70 percent, occurred when the partner who was the source of infection had no symptoms.

Weisberg and Mertz said concerned couples should avoid sex during outbreaks and use latex condoms, even during asymptomatic periods and especially when the woman is pregnant, to avoid infecting the infant.

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