Herpes Simplex Virus Type 2 (HSV-2) is a growing public health concern for many African-American Women. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 48 percent of African-American women between the ages of 14 and 49 were infected with HSV-2. This was a shocking revelation considering that nationally, 21 percent of all women between the ages of 14-49, regardless of ethnicity, are infected with the virus. In essence, African-American women comprise almost half of the number of those infected with the virus, despite the fact that they compromise only 13.7 percent of the United States population.
Sexually transmitted disease (STD) researchers have reported that men may be two to four times less likely to acquire HSV-2 than women. This is partially due to anatomical differences in genitalia, as women have more exposed and delicate areas on their genitalia by which the virus can be transmitted. It has also been suggested that these high rates of infection by African-American women may be due to societal barriers such as inaccessibility to adequate health care and lack of education regarding sexual health.
In terms of health care, it has been shown that insurance coverage presents a barrier for many women of color, as African-Americans obtain fewer health insurance policies than other ethnic groups. African-Americans are also more likely to have lower paying jobs that frequently offer no health insurance benefits, making them less likely to seek care for STD related symptoms.
Regarding sex-education, comprehensive sex-education programs have proven effective at increasing the use of contraceptives. Comprehensive sex-education programs are inclusive models of health education that provide individuals with the knowledge, skills and values to make informed and healthy decisions about their sexual health. Contrary to popular belief, comprehensive sex-education programs have not been shown to promote early engagement in sexual activity. Nonetheless, many states only offer abstinence sex-education programs, with very few offering comprehensive programs.
Although the Black community is vastly impacted by HSV-2, there are some methods that can be taken to reduce transmission. Antiviral therapy has been shown to be an effective tool in reducing transmission rates in individuals living with HSV-2. Antiviral therapies are medications taken by individuals with existing HSV-2 infections to help manage the virus. If taken as directed, antiviral medications can help to reduce transmission of the virus. Condom usage has also been noted as an additional tool for reducing transmission, if combined with antiviral therapy. However, condoms alone cannot fully protect against HSV-2. In addition to these methods, behavioral approaches such as talking to current and potential sexual partners about one’s HSV-2 status, abstaining from sexual activity during outbreaks and educating oneself on the virus have been shown to reduce transmission rates.
In addition to the health challenges that HSV-2 presents, individuals in the African-American community living with the virus may experience an array of psychological symptoms. Being diagnosed with a chronic health concern can sometimes be a difficult adjustment. Individuals in the African-American community experiencing this concern can benefit from the help of mental health professionals. Psychologists and other mental health professionals can play a vital role in encouraging and implementing behavioral strategies to help deal with the virus. Moreover, mental health professionals can help individuals understand that this type of infection is fairly common and can be contracted unbeknown to women. Subsequently, individuals should not blame themselves. Mental health professionals can assist in helping individuals to rationally process their feelings. If you or someone you know is living with HSV-2 or another STD, and is experiencing psychological distress, consider enlisting the help of a trusted mental health professional.
Ajasha M. Long is a doctoral student at Ball State University and member of the Indiana Association of Black Psychologists.