Herpes simplex virus (HSV)-2 is periodically shed in the human genital tract, most often asymptomatically, and most sexual transmissions occur during asymptomatic shedding. It would be helpful to identify a genital viral load threshold necessary for transmission, as clinical interventions that maintain viral quantity below this level would be of high utility. However, because viral expansion, decay and re-expansion kinetics are extremely rapid during shedding episodes, it is impossible to directly measure genital viral load at the time of sexual activity. We developed a mathematical model based on reproducing shedding patterns in transmitting partners, and median number of sex acts prior to transmission in discordant couples, to estimate infectivity of single viral particles in the negative partner's genital tract. We then inferred probability estimates for transmission at different levels of genital tract viral load in the transmitting partner. We predict that transmission is unlikely at viral loads less than 10(4) HSV DNA copies. Moreover, most transmissions occur during prolonged episodes with high viral copy numbers. Many shedding episodes that result in transmission do not reach the threshold of clinical detection, because the ulcer remains very small, highlighting one reason why HSV-2 spreads so effectively within populations.
Keywords: mathematical model; transmission; virology.