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Home Sexual Health Sexual Health Genital Herpes Rates Among Women Who Have Sex with Women

Genital Herpes Rates Among Women Who Have Sex with Women

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New data from a national survey on same-sex behavior

The National Health and Examination Surveys (NHANES), that gather data through interviews and physical examinations from thousands of individuals, give us a national picture of the health and nutritional status of children and adults in the United States. Since 1989, NHANES has provided us with data on HSV-2 prevalence in the U.S. In a new study published in Sexually Transmitted Diseases, NHANES data now offer insight into HSV-2 infection rates among women who have sex with women (WSW).

This report marks the first time that NHANES has reported on same sex behavior, as noted by Jeanne Marrazzo, MD, MPH, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Washington, in an accompanying editorial. And as the study authors note, studies about STIs among WSW with women are rare, and WSW are “often invisible” in national reporting on HIV and STIs. This analysis offers researchers a better understanding of this population. women

The data on WSW was gathered from 2001-2006. Women aged 18 to 59 participating in NHANES were interviewed about their sexual behaviors. Results showed that of the 95 percent of women reporting having ever had sex (vaginal, oral or anal), 7.1 percent indicated that they had sex with women at some point in their lives, with the highest percentage in the 18-29 age group. Of this group, though, only 19.1 percent identified as lesbian. Overall, most women in the survey identified themselves as heterosexual or straight (94.6%), with 1.4% identifying as lesbian, 2.5% as bisexual, and the remaining women as “not sure” or some other category. As a group, WSW had a higher rate of HSV-2 infection than non-WSW, but there were some distinct differences in subgroups of WSW. Among women who identified as heterosexual and reported no lifetime same-sex behavior, HSV-2 prevalence was 23.8 percent, compared to 45.6 percent of women who identified as heterosexual but did report some same-sex behavior. Among women identifying as homosexual or lesbian, HSV-2 seroprevalence was 8.2 percent.

Researchers conclude that that data show a higher burden of HSV-2 infection in WSW than in non-WSW, noting the differences in subgroups of WSW. For example, among the group reporting some lifetime same-sex behavior, more than half reported their sexual orientation as heterosexual. Among those who reported sex with women in the past year, nearly a quarter (23.5%) identified as heterosexual The study authors suggest that public health practitioners consider both sexual behavior and sexual orientation when considering STI risks and prevention messages. Indeed, the survey shows that self-identified sexual orientation isn’t a clear guide to behavior and risk. As Marrazzo notes in her editorial, “These findings are very good reminders that equating sexual behavior to sexual identity—a tendency still evident in many clinical interactions and some guidelines—is neither reliable nor advisable, and is essentially scientifically irresponsible.”

 

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