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5th October 2014

Is herpes a big deal?

The New York Times called genital herpes the “largest epidemic no one wants to talk about.” So is it actually a big deal to have it?

Most people have some form of herpes, and many might not even think to stop at the doctor’s office for a blood test or cell culture, which is the medtech typically used to diagnose it. The herpes simplex virus has two strains: HSV-1, which normally causes cold sores, and HSV-2, the variety that most commonly causes genital herpes.

Once the body is infected, the virus remains there for life. The reason people might not know they’re infected is that they might not experience any symptoms. Instead, the herpes virus just remains dormant, hiding in nerve cells.

Rates of infection vary widely in Europe, according to a 2004 survey by the British Medical Journal. The rate for HSV-1 ranges from 52% in Finland, to 84% in Bulgaria. Meanwhile, HSV-2 is much less common, ranging from 4% in England and Wales to 24% in Bulgaria. A carrier might have it, and not realise it. In fact, according to one study, carriers of HSV-2 without symptoms may actually be more likely to spread the condition that those displaying outward signs.

Not worth the stigma

Still, it remains a challenge for people to be entirely open about it. This happens particularly in the case of genital herpes, as people with the infection fear being rejected by potential partners. While the risk of transmission can be significantly reduced with condoms, medication, and avoiding contact during flare-ups, it can’t be completely eliminated. At the same time, sex is never 100% safe.

Research indicates that knowing your status and being mindful of it helps avoid further spread of the virus: a study at the University of Washington with 200 people with genital herpes showed that those who were honest about it were able to prevent their partners from getting the virus for 9 months, as opposed to the two months it took by those who kept it a secret.

So is herpes, then, a big deal? Going by the infection statistics, it’s extremely common, and not always symptomatic. The stigma is arguably not proportional to the actual condition. Still, honesty is beneficial to the partners of those with the virus, and could do a lot to cut down on infection rates.

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