WHO Report: Two-Thirds of People Under 50 Worldwide Have Oral Herpes

The World Health Organization is dropping some major bombs this week.

On Monday, the UN’s international public health agency announced that processed meats cause cancer. Today, the WHO released a global estimate that around 3.7 billion people in the world – approximately two-thirds of all people under age 50 – are infected with herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). You’ll probably recognize it under its more common name, oral herpes.

The concerning part is that HSV-1 isn’t just cold sores and thinking twice about kissing. Findings published by medical journal Plos One have determined that HSV-1 is increasingly becoming a cause of genital herpes, which is almost exclusively sexually transmitted.

According to the WHO, around 140 million people worldwide have been infected genitally by the oral herpes virus, which is almost enough to void the term “exclusive” when it comes to its sexual method of transmission. Even more concerning is the fact that, on top of being a major social stigma and severe inconvenience, HSV-2 has been shown to increase a person’s risk of becoming infected with HIV.

Picture the scenario like a whole bunch of people walking around with a mildly sore throat, interacting and causing 1 in 25 to develop a serious flu, which then has the potential to turn into fatal pneumonia.

“I think what’s really interesting about this is it really reflects behavioural changes,” said Dr. Vanessa Allen, chief of medical microbiology with Public Health Ontario. “As sexual practices change — and part of that is because people are trying to have safer and safer sex — there’s some hypothesizing that this may lead to more oral sex.”

Though the highest prevalence of HSV-1 was in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Western Pacific, the virus is also becoming alarmingly concentrated in wealthier countries like Canada as well.