Even though 90 percent of people have some form of herpes, the virus is heavily stigmatized. But the transition from the “nagging itch” to the shameful secret may not have been a coincidence.
In 1982, all eyes were on the herpes simplex virus. In the previous two decades, the public perception of the benign-but-irritating virus had been transformed from “pica abajo” into the scourge of a generation. That year, Time magazine ran a cover story titled “The New Scarlet Letter,” which explored – and reinforced – the stigma surrounding herpes. Its authors, John Leo and Maureen Dowd, argue that herpes could end the so-called sexual revolution, which they clearly despise. (In fact, the initial sentence of the feature reads: “After chastity cleared into exile in the 1960s, the sexual revolution encountered little resistance.”)
History has stated that herpes was “altering sexual rituals in the United States, changing courtship patterns, sending thousands of patients turning in months of depression and self-exile and giving a numbing blow to one night stand.” He emphasized the authors’ expectation that “the herpes counter-revolution may be leading to reluctant chastity and rancor to fashion.” Herpes is portrayed as a whip of swingers, prostitutes, and philanderers. In the course of the piece, several women “give smiling husbands lectures on the ravages of the disease to keep them faithful,” are left by their boyfriends to break cold sores, to boast of having given herpes to “a thousand boys.”
The authors conclude by thanking herpes for “helping end an era of stupid promiscuity” and “ushering in a period in which sex is more firmly linked to commitment and trust.”
Although the history of Time can be reduced to irresponsible journalism, the narratives outlined in it are still portrayed constantly in the media. On Saturday Night Live in 2006, Amy Poehler portrayed the clueless housewife in a brave Valtrex commercial in which she contracts herpes from her supposedly faithful husband, played by Alec Baldwin. In an episode of 2014 by Inside Amy Schumer, Amy tries to negotiate with God to protect her against herpes. God, played by Paul Giamatti, responds: “70 percent of people who contact me have a scare of herpes.”
Jenelle Marie Davis, founder of the award-winning STD Project and spokeswoman for PositiveSingles.com, a dating site for people with ETS, was diagnosed with genital herpes when she was sixteen. After the trusted friend betrayed her trust, Davis was embarrassed and intimidated by other children. “Being a teenager in high school is difficult as it is,” he tells me. “Couple that with the taboo infection … it was a really bad experience for me.”
Every day, Davis interacts and provides resources to thousands of women and men who face the same social reaction, stigma and shame he faced as a teenager. “When research has been done on the consequences of herpes and what people are most afraid of, they are the social ramifications,” she says. “Most people do not care about the virus itself: they worry about how the virus is perceived.”
Although infection is extremely common – most estimates say that up to 90 percent of the population has some form of herpes – those who are diagnosed often find the news comes with a great deal of embarrassment.
Davis says that herpes may be “the last bastion of acceptable shame” because of its benign nature and because no one wants to speak openly about their diagnosis. “No one is talking about it, so everyone keeps hiding and keeps laughing and continues to let the jokes continue,” he says. “No one stops joking.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend routine HSV-2 testing because it is “expensive,” false positive results may occur in some people with a low probability of infection and Diagnosis can have adverse psychological effects for some people. ”
According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, “for many patients, the psychological effects are much more serious than the physical consequences of the disease.” Shock, anger, guilt, low self-esteem, fear of transmitting infection to others, and deterioration of sexual function are common and can substantially interfere with relationships. “Diagnosing herpes can also lead to social withdrawal and isolation, Especially in young people.
In many cases it is the safety of the herpes virus itself responsible for the disconnection between the doctors and their patients. Studies show that many doctors overlook the herpes psychological herpes can take and focus exclusively on the treatment of physical symptoms.
Dr. Sunil Goyal, MD, answered some questions for me through online chat. When I asked her why the herpes test is not usually included in an STD panel, she listed four reasons: “First, getting a herpes test is expensive, and that’s one reason why it’s not included in a test. Common panel “he said. “Second, it’s estimated that nearly 90 percent of the US adult population has been exposed to herpes or carries herpes, so getting tested is basically a moot point.Third, even if you have herpes, Is not really a big problem because it will not result in any life-threatening infection … Finally, the herpes virus can remain latent and is difficult to detect in the bloodstream. ”
A few conspiratorial circumstances surround the stigmatization of herpes, which began sometime in the 1970s. Until the 1960s, doctors were not even able to distinguish between herpes simplex virus type 1 (or HSV-1), better known as oral herpes or cold sores) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2) Most often characterized by genital sores.
“Before you just diagnosed her as a herpes simplex virus, whether you had a cold sore or whether it was on your genitals or if it was on your finger, it was all herpes simplex virus,” explains Davis. “Then they decide to differentiate between herpes simplex virus 1 and 2, and it immediately becomes a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ virus. We are now saying that if you have herpes in your mouth you have not done anything wrong, genital herpes] In a moral problem “.
There are many untested but fascinating rumors blaming Burroughs Wellcome Co., the pharmaceutical company behind the soothing acyclovir of HSV (Zovirax), for developing the stigma of herpes in tandem with its new drug to create a market for it.
“The Burroughs Wellcome advertising campaign was designed to stimulate Zovirax’s demand by raising patients’ concerns about the societal consequences and consequences of the infection and the consequences of the infection. Emphasizing that the drug could reduce outbreaks and transmission. ”
Herpes.org.uk tells a similar story: “In the late 1970s, Burroughs Wellcome managed to create a viable antiviral drug, the only drawback being that it only affected some viruses in the herpes family, severe enough to require Treatment at all […] A disease awareness campaign was organized to alert physicians and patients of the benefits of the new drug. A major disease […] In America, Burroughs Wellcome sponsored support groups to advise to the “sick” of the benefits of the new drug. ”
Pedro Cuatrecasas, a biochemist who participated in the discovery, development and commercialization of aciclovir as head of R & D at Burroughs Wellcome Co. from 1975 to 1985, recalls: “During the [discovery and development] of aciclovir (Zovirax), marketing In which there were no “markets” for this compound, most of whom had barely heard of genital herpes, let alone the common and devastating herpetic systemic infections in immunocompromised patients. ”
In 1983, pharmaceutical analyst Arnold Snider told the New York Times: “I think most drug companies have a program for genital herpes, it’s a huge effort right now.” The Times concluded: “The current herpes epidemic presents a rare opportunity in the drug business, a potentially booming market with potentially booming earnings.”
Dr. Kelly Schuh, bestselling author of Live Love & Thrive with Herpes and founder of PinkTent.com, an online community of women with herpes, tells me that doctors are “perpetuating the problem and stigma” to not Test the general population herpes. “I had several people tell me [stories in which] their primary care physician would say, ‘Oh, you do not want to know what that is.’ [Or] they will misdiagnose it and call it shingles, to take away some of the stigma, so other than genital herpes, “he says. “I think they’re somehow trying to cite” protecting their patients, “but they’re actually lying to their patients.”
Both Dr. Schuh and Ms. Davis believe that more testing would result in less stigma, but that doctors are uncomfortable about upsetting their patients. “People get scared, and then they want to know, ‘How did I get it? Where did it come from?’ And that’s not an easy question to answer, “says Davis. “Then it turns out to be a much longer consultation, and really, I mean, people become suicidal-and understandably, because the stigma is so bad.”
With tests that are expensive, inaccurate and irrelevant to the health of patients, we are not likely to see a spike in herpes testing in the short term. But Dr. Schuh sees another way to fight against stigma: talking to each other. “I think the first thing [that women need to hear] is that they are not alone.I think the stigma is really insulating.Many women, when they are first diagnosed … first, they think they have done something wrong and feel that they are alone “.
Dr. Schuh has heard many stories in his time running Pink Tent. “It’s horrible to know this, but there are people who are suicidal about this diagnosis,” she says. “I just want to reach out and give them a big hug, and let them know that everything is going to be okay.” She ends our call on a positive note: reminding me that herpes is nothing to be embarrassed about. “It’s really a skin infection that can be managed,” she says sweetly, most likely assuming I have herpes. And the odds are they probably will.