Zambia, South Africa prevention study finds those with herpes virus facing six times HIV risk

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Communities’ HIV prevalence could be predicted “almost exactly” from prevalence of herpes virus, researchers find

A study across 21 communities in Zambia and South Africa confirms a strong association between infection with the virus that causes genital herpes, and HIV infection, with findings that indicate being already infected with herpes simplex virus 2, or HSV2, increases risks of both getting and transmitting HIV, authors of a report published April 6 in the Journal of Infectious Diseases write.

To analyze links between HSV2 and HIV, researchers used data collected in baseline surveys from the ongoing PopART study which examines the impacts of universal access to testing and treatment for HIV in lowering incidence of the virus. Their report, “Sexually transmitted bedfellows: Exquisite association between HIV and HSV2 in 21 communities,” notes that prevalence of herpes virus infection is higher among women than men, with 50 percent prevalence among women and 22 percent prevalence among men overall across 12 Zambia communities, and 60 percent prevalence among women, and 27 percent prevalence among men overall across nine South Africa communities. The chances that a woman or man infected with the herpes virus would is also infected with HIV, however, were the same — six times the chances of those not infected with HSV2. On a community level, the authors wrote, “we were surprised by the extremely strong association between the prevalences of the two infections . . . such that the prevalence of HIV could be predicted almost exactly from its HSV2 prevalence.”

While the two sexually transmitted infections could simply be likelier to be found in individuals with more sexual partners, the authors point to earlier longitudinal studies showing HSV2 infection preceding HIV infection, and suggest it is likely that HSV2 infection contributes to the risks of subsequent HIV infection. The implications, they add mean that the development of a vaccine effective in protecting against HSV2 infection could help lower HIV incidence and “may play an important role in this struggle.”

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