Transmission of Kaposi’s Sarcoma-Associated Virus Linked to Kissing, Study Says
Human herpes virus 8, which causes Kaposi's sarcoma, appears to be spread through kissing, according to new research from the University of Washington reported in today's New England Journal of Medicine. Kaposi's sarcoma, a type of skin cancer, causes purple blotches on the skin and can attack internal organs. The virus usually affects individuals with weak immune systems, such as those with AIDS, and "rarely causes sickness" among people with healthy immune systems. HHV-8 is most frequently detected in HIV-positive gay men in the United States (AP/Washington Times, 11/9). The virus was previously believed to spread through sexual intercourse, but researchers have shown that the virus is much more prevalent in saliva samples than in genital fluid samples. John Pauk and colleagues tested 39 HHV-8-positive gay men who had not developed Kaposi's sarcoma, and found HHV-8 in 30% of subjects' saliva samples and mouth swabs, compared with 1% of anal and genital swabs. In addition, viral levels were much higher in saliva samples than in semen samples. Researchers also found that gay men who engaged in "deep kissing," which involves high levels of saliva contact, "appeared to be at substantially higher risk of catching the virus" (Washington Post, 11/9). Pauk said of the findings, "The important thing is it suggests that oral-oral contact plays some role in transmission, although more study is needed to confirm that." Dr. Ronald Valdiserri of the CDC said that the research "definitely has public health implications for people infected with HIV," but he did not feel there was "enough data to recommend that people with HIV avoid deep kissing." The AP/Washington Times reports that 30%-50% of HIV-infected people who contract HHV-8 will eventually develop Kaposi's sarcoma. Experts say that the virus is "still largely confined to homosexuals in the United States, and that is why kissing has not yet spread HHV-8 among heterosexuals." The virus, more common in Southern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, was rare in the United States until the start of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s (AP/Washington Times, 11/9).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.