Alarming CDC study draws fire

In early autumn of 2010 the CDC came out with its findings on the national prevalence of genital herpes (HSV-2). The results were disquieting, particularly the incidence in the female African-American population. The data was published as the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES), a nationally representative survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics since the early 1960s.

While the overall national percentage of individuals testing positive for Genital Herpes remains high (16.2%), the figure for African-American women was found to be a whopping 48%.

The implications set forth in these findings are significant. Aside from the obvious repercussions of so many in one subset of the population carrying around a highly contagious STD/STI, it’s also worth noting that viral exposure increases the likelihood of acquiring HIV by 2-3 times. These numbers, although not much higher than those found in previous years, are certainly alarming.

Naturally, the CDC press release that publicly announced these findings left the African-American community outraged and in disbelief. News articles and blog posts abounded, highlighting not just the astonishing national numbers but also honing in on the percentage of African-American women with HSV-2 antibodies — nearly half of all black women.

In response to the release of this study, some people — both professional and laypeople — are now questioning the methodology by which the CDC collected samples for this study and how we, the general public, ought to interpret them. Dr. David Malebranche, an Assistant Professor at Emory University and expert on African-Americans and STDs, was quoted as saying that since only antibody exposure to the HSV-2 virus was charted this does not mean these women have an active infection or will ever develop the disease.

The NHANES information was gathered by choosing a randomly selected pool of 5,000 people who are not in the military or in an institution, which is how they’ve conducted their studies for decades. Some, however, are concerned that there was little effort to include socioeconomic diversity in this pool, a decision which may have led to an unfair and imperfect conclusion.
Critics point to the fact that middle-class African Americans are rarely included in statistical research for STDs.

Could the biggest disparity with this study lie in whether there exists marked differences between poor African-American women and middle-class African-American women? Would it be more statistically sound to conduct separate studies of genital herpes in women, divided not just by race but by other socioeconomic factors as well?

The CDC doesn’t think so. They stand by these findings, issuing a statement defending the quality of the study, effectively separating the agency from Dr. Malebranche’s challenging assertions.

To solely focus on the study’s validity is to turn a blind eye to the fact that an overwhelming percentage of the female population, regardless of any demographic, has an active genital herpes outbreak or carries the virus in their body. This affects women of every color and creed — mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, and friends. It crosses all societal boundaries and is more pervasive than most people believe.

Genital Herpes (HSV-2) is one of the most difficult conditions for people to discuss honestly and openly. These NHANES numbers should only serve to solidify how urgently we need to properly educate everyone on prevention for future eradication to become reality.