KS-associated herpes virus epidemic in SF gay men predates HIV epidemic, UCSF study finds

By Jeff Sheehy


A high percentage of San Francisco gay men were infected with Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus (KSHV), the virus that causes Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS), in 1978 before the onset of the HIV epidemic, , according to UCSF researchers.

“In part because KS was so rare in the U.S. prior to the HIV epidemic, it had been assumed that KSHV infection was also rare before the HIV epidemic. However, we found a high percentage-about one in four-of gay men infected with KSHV before large numbers were infected with HIV,” said the study’s lead author, Dennis H. Osmond, PhD, UCSF associate professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics.

“Furthermore, we found that the level of KSHV infection in gay men was remarkably unchanged from 1978 to 1995.  This suggests that any prior reports of a decline in KS before the era of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) are not explained by a decline in transmission of KSHV.  In fact, when we re-examined available data for a decline in KS, we were unable to confirm the prior reports,” said Osmond.

“We also found a significant decrease in the practice of unprotected anal intercourse among gay men in San Francisco between 1984 and 1995.  This likely explains the decline in HIV transmission observed among gay men during this time.  However, the frequency of oral intercourse did not change.  Because the prevalence of KSHV infection did not change during this time, this suggests that oral intercourse is a more likely route of KSHV transmission than anal intercourse.  Since KSHV is much more commonly present in saliva than in semen, this suggests that the practice of insertive penile-oral intercourse might be most important in the transmission of KSHV,” said Jeffrey N. Martin, M.D., M.P.H., UCSF assistant professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics, who directed the study with Dr. Osmond. 

The study, published in the January 9th issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined stored serum from three earlier studies of gay men in San Francisco in 1978-80, 1984-85, and 1995-96.  The San Francisco City Clinic Cohort, the first study, screened 6709 gay men between 1978 and 1980.  Testing of the serum samples collected in the first six months of 1978 showed 24.9% infected with KSHV and only 1.8% infected with HIV.
The percentage of gay men infected with HIV rocketed to 50% while the percentage infected with KSHV was steady at 29.6% in the second study.  The San Francisco Men’s Health Study was a population based probability sample of gay men with the serum specimens drawn in 1984 and 1985.  In this study, 54% of gay men reported unprotected penile-anal intercourse with one or more partners. The rate of unprotected penile-oral intercourse was just over 60%.

The last study was also a population based probability sample of gay men. The San Francisco Young Men’s Health Study collected serum specimens from in 1995-96.  The rate of HIV infection dropped to 18% while the rate of KSHV infection was stable at 26.4%.  At this time, only 11% of gay men reported unprotected receptive penile-anal intercourse.  However, the rate of unprotected penile-oral intercourse remained high, over 80%.

Co-authors of the study include Susan Buchbinder, MD, associate clinical professor in the UCSF departments of medicine and of epidemiology and biostatistics, and chief, Research Branch, AIDS Office, San Francisco Department of Public Health; Amber Cheng, MPH, statistician; Alison Graves, MPH, research associate; Eric Vittinghoff, PhD, assistant professor; all in UCSF’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics; Cynthia K. Cossen, BS, microbiologist, and Bagher Forghani, PhD, chief of the immunoserology section, Viral and Rickettsial Disease Laboratory, California Department of Health Services.

This research was supported by grants from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.