USPSTF Recommends Against Routine Herpes Screening for Asymptomatic Teens and Adults

Heidi Splete

February 15, 2023

Asymptomatic adults, teens, and pregnant women with no known history or symptoms of herpes infection need not undergo routine screening, according to the latest recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

The 2023 recommendation reaffirms the conclusion from 2016, wrote Carol M. Mangione, MD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, and members of the task force.

"Currently, routine serologic screening for genital herpes is limited by the low predictive value of the widely available serologic screening tests and the expected high rate of false-positive results likely to occur with routine screening of asymptomatic persons in the U.S.," the authors said.

In the recommendation, published in JAMA, the authors affirmed with moderate certainty and a grade D recommendation that the risks of routine screening for herpes simplex virus (HSV) in asymptomatic individuals outweigh the benefits.

The task force found no new evidence on the accuracy of serologic screening tests, the benefits of early detection and treatment, or on the harms of screening and treatment since the 2016 review of 17 studies in 19 publications, with data from more than 9,000 individuals.

Studies of the accuracy of serologic screening for herpes simplex virus-2 in the 2016 report mainly reflect populations with higher HSV-2 prevalence and are of limited applicability to the U.S. primary care population, the authors wrote. Evidence from the 2016 review also showed limited and inconsistent support for the early identification and treatment of HSV-2 in asymptomatic individuals, including those who were pregnant.

No new evidence has emerged since 2016 regarding harms of screening or treating genital herpes in asymptomatic individuals, the authors noted. "Based on previous evidence, the USPSTF estimated that using the widely available serologic tests for HSV-2, nearly 1 of every 2 diagnoses in the general U.S. primary care population could be false," they said. The task force also concluded that the low accuracy of the current tests could prompt unnecessary treatment for individuals with false-positive diagnoses, as well as social and emotional harm for these individuals.

During a period of public comment from Aug. 16, 2022, to Sept. 12, 2022, individuals expressed concerns that the recommendation against routine screening showed a disinclination to take herpes seriously, and concerns that asymptomatic individuals could transmit the infection to sexual partners, the authors said. However, the estimated seroprevalence of HSV-1 and HSV-2 has declined in recent decades, and other comments supported the USPSTF's analysis of the evidence and noted their consistency with current clinical practice.

The task force noted that research gaps remain and recognized the need to improve screening and treatment of genital herpes to prevent symptomatic episodes and transmission. Specifically, the USPSTF recommendation calls for more research to assess the accuracy of screening tests, to enroll more study participants from populations disproportionately affected by HSV, to examine the effect of behavioral counseling, and to clarify associations between HSV and pregnancy outcomes. In addition, the task force called for research to create an effective vaccine to prevent genital HSV infection and to develop a cure.

Targeted screening makes sense for now

"Given the frequency and severity of the range of diseases seen with HSV and the large proportion of persons who are asymptomatic, identifying carriers through type-specific serologic screening has long been considered a plausible strategy," Mark D. Pearlman, MD, of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, wrote in an accompanying editorial.

However, accuracy of the currently available serology screening tests is low, and the adverse social and psychological effects and the impact on relationships for many asymptomatic individuals who test positive and may be incorrectly identified as infected remains a concern, said Dr. Pearlman.

Although some may be disagree about the value of routine serotesting for HSV-2 in asymptomatic individuals, other strategies can reduce the spread of infection and help those infected, he said.

Many experts continue to recommend targeted serotesting to high-risk populations, such as pregnant women whose nonpregnant partner is known to have genital or oral herpes and whose own infection status or serostatus is uncertain, said Dr. Pearlman. Other targeted strategies include screening individuals with recurrent or atypical genital symptoms and negative polymerase chain reaction assay or culture results, a clinical herpes diagnosis without laboratory confirmation, or those at increased risk because of a high number of sexual partners or a history of HIV infection, he said.

"Of note, the current CDC STI guidelines and ACOG both concur with the USPSTF that routine screening in the general population or routine screening during pregnancy are not recommended," Dr. Pearlman said. Meanwhile, research efforts continue to help reduce the impact of HSV disease and development of a more effective testing methodology "might tip the balance in favor of routine screening" in the future, he emphasized.

The recommendations were supported by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The members of the task force received reimbursement for travel and an honorarium but had no other relevant financial conflicts to disclose. Dr. Pearlman had no financial conflicts to disclose.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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