Background: The current clinical strategy for diagnosing genital herpes simplex virus (HSV) infection in women relies on clinical findings plus the selective use of viral culture. The effectiveness of this approach for identifying women with genital herpes is unknown.
Methods: We performed physical examinations, colposcopy, Pap smears, viral cultures, and HSV type-specific serologic assays of 779 randomly selected women attending a sexually transmitted disease clinic.
Results: Evidence of HSV type 2 infection was detected in 363 women (47 percent), and 9 others (1 percent) had positive cultures indicative of urogenital or anal infection with HSV type 1. Of these 372 women, only 82 (22 percent) had symptoms. Fourteen women (4 percent) had viral shedding without symptoms, 60 (16 percent) had formerly had symptomatic episodes, and 216 (58 percent) had antibodies to HSV-2 with neither viral shedding nor a history of clinical episodes. Characteristic ulcerations of the external genitalia were present in only two thirds of the 66 women with positive HSV cultures; the others had atypical genital lesions or asymptomatic viral shedding. Isolation of HSV from a genitourinary tract specimen was the most sensitive (77 percent) test for confirming a first episode of infection. The detection of HSV-2-specific antibodies was the most sensitive (97 percent) way to confirm symptomatic reactivations of HSV-2 infection. HSV-2 serologic testing also identified the 290 women with asymptomatic HSV-2 infections (37 percent), including 14 (5 percent) who were shedding virus asymptomatically on the day of the examination.
Conclusions: The current strategy for diagnosing genital HSV infection in women misses many cases. Newly developed type-specific serologic methods can identify women with recurrent genital HSV-2 infection, as well as those with unrecognized or subclinical infection.