Background: Primary infections with herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) acquired by women during pregnancy account for about half of the morbidity and mortality from HSV-2 among neonates. The other half results from reactivation of old infections. Better methods are needed to identify which women are at risk for primary HSV-2 infection.
Methods: We prospectively studied HSV-2 infections among pregnant women who were patients in private obstetrical practices. Using an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay that detects type-specific antibodies to HSV-2 glycoprotein G, we determined the prevalence at base line of HSV-2 infections among pregnant women and their husbands, the frequency of discordance for infection between partners, and the risk of seroconversion during pregnancy among the seronegative women whose husbands were seropositive.
Results: The seroprevalence of HSV-2 was 32 percent among the 277 women followed throughout their pregnancies and 25 percent among the 190 husbands studied. Two thirds of the HSV-2-seropositive women had no history of genital herpes. Of the 190 couples, 139 (73 percent) were serologically concordant for HSV-2 antibodies (57 percent being seronegative and 16 percent being seropositive), whereas 51 couples (27 percent) were discordant, despite having been sexually intimate for a mean of 6.1 years. Eighteen women who were seronegative for HSV-2 (9.5 percent) had seropositive partners, of whom 10 (56 percent) had no history of genital herpes. Thus, approximately 5 percent of these pregnant women had an unsuspected risk of contracting a primary HSV-2 infection. One of the 18 seronegative women with a seropositive husband seroconverted to HSV-2 during pregnancy; none of the other women seroconverted.
Conclusions: In this study about 10 percent of pregnant women were at risk of contracting a primary HSV-2 infection from their HSV-2-seropositive husbands. In addition, about a third of these women were seropositive for HSV-2 and thus at risk for asymptomatic, reactivated infections. Serologic testing of couples can identify women who are at risk for primary or reactivated HSV-2 infections during pregnancy.