There was a period in time when HIV was a commonly feared and misunderstood STI. Things have improved over the last few decades, however, thanks to accessible and effective medications and groundbreaking discoveries. The stigma hasn’t been erased, but it’s not as prevalent as it was in decades past. Still, even as the general public learns to accept some infectious diseases, there are others that remain on the blacklist, like herpes.
Herpes patients tend to suffer in silence – their outbreaks aren’t usually visible to strangers and their symptoms aren’t as severe as other STIs. Because of this, the disease isn’t discussed openly and the facts are hard to come by. Many people don’t understand how herpes affects the body, how people contract it, and what effects it has on the patient. The lack of knowledge means herpes patients face intense negativity; they’re aren’t just misunderstood – they’re ridiculed and vilified.
The Social Judgement
Some of the earliest fearmongering about herpes dates back to the 1970s. One article published in TIMEreferred to herpes as that era’s “scarlet letter”. And though almost 50 years have passed since the piece ran, that view remains practically unchanged. In 2015, the term “herpes dirty” turned up an estimated 600,000 results. In many of those articles, herpes was simply substituted for dirty.
To make matters worse, herpes patients are often the butt of jokes on popular TV shows. Over the course of several years, shows ranging from The Office to Family Guy included jokes about people with herpes. Those jokes were often based on inaccuracies and helped perpetuate the wide misunderstanding about those suffering from the virus.
On the surface, it might not seem like a big deal that people are being made fun of on a TV show, but it’s bigger than a single joke. This social stigma can affect herpes patients in awful ways. 12% of Americans – that’s millions of people – have contracted HSV-2 but have never been properly diagnosed. That’s because 4 in 5 of these patients won’t get tested. They’d rather suffer in private instead of getting the help they need and risking the judgment of others.
And things don’t always get better with the right diagnosis and treatment. Take Adrial Dale, for instance. He learned he had herpes in 2015, and he initially felt ashamed and afraid. In speaking to NPR, he shared that he thought his romantic life was over. Luckily, he pushed through and decided to help other herpes patients through his online community Herpes Opportunity. But not everyone is as strong or optimistic.
The Changing Perspective
Another contributing factor to herpes patients’ poor experiences is inadequate care. These patients don’t always get the help they need once they go to a doctor’s office. One 2004 study showed that some patients didn’t receive prescriptions to treat the virus while others did. Some were rushed through their appointments and denied resources while others had time to ask questions and received supplemental materials.
To further compound this, it’s not exactly easy to get tested for herpes. The virus isn’t included in many STI screens because of issues with false positives, lack of evidence of testing leading to better health, and the unnecessary stress that the test causes.
In the event that herpes patients are fortunate enough to get treated, their course of medication usually consists of one of two antivirals – one that they take every day or one that they take only when they have an outbreak. These drugs provide some relief, but they aren’t a cure. So, sadly, herpes patients battle ridicule, stigma, poor treatment, and lack of access to testing with no guarantee that they’ll feel better.
In a promising development, Synergy Pharmaceuticals has been shown to offer the relief that antivirals can’t. The treatment is developed from five natural ingredients and it can be purchased online without a prescription. In addition to being more accessible, the treatment also has demonstrated better results. Based on Synergy’s drug trials, it showed that the majority of patients using the treatment for 6 months stopped having outbreaks completely. So far the indicators from early data on effective markers showed that this could potentially be the long heralded cure for the herpes simplex virus.
To cross reference the results in the real world a group of Yale students conducted a recent study. They examined 10 people with notable genital outbreaks and or fever blisters to see if the products actually stand up to the claims. From the 10 people, seven showed no further symptoms post treatment, the remaining three showed a significant reduction but still indicated some degree of symptoms. It would be reasonable to suggest there is a correlation to the results reflected in Synergy’s study and that one might also suggest the cure is now very real. Although a cure for herpes doesn’t come without its critics it seems, with many scrutinizing the possibility. Especially those who are in favor of common pharmaceutical antiviral medications that have been around for decades.
The Reality of Living with Herpes
When a patient is first diagnosed with herpes, they can feel despair for the first few weeks. Some patients take upwards of six months to adjust. Their feelings can be mildly uncomfortable, like the shame and embarrassment that Dale felt. Or they could have more serious issues like anger and depression. Herpes forces these patients into a new reality, and with such a strong social stigma, that reality can seem hopeless.
Generally speaking, patients with infectious diseases are at a higher risk of suicide and other mental health issues. Patients who are HIV-positive have suicide rates that are 3 times higher than the rest of the population. 1 in 4 HIV-positive gay and bisexual men report suicidal ideation. Hepatitis C patients show increased depression and suicidal behavior. 1200 Lyme disease patients commit suicide each year. In short, people with infectious diseases lose hope and without the support and understanding they need, their risk of mental health problems is high.
These same patterns are present in herpes patients. Many sufferers deal with anxiety, impotence, stress, and insomnia as a result of the virus. On top of needing treatment for herpes, their fear manifests itself in several other ways. Lee, a 32-year-old woman profiled by Health.com, shared that she had numerous bouts of depression after her diagnosis. In opening up to her loved ones about it, she worried about how they’d view her, and she was careful to make the reveal about them, not her. She focused on how she could help and protect them, instead of asking for help and protection for herself. In a more open society, perhaps it could’ve been the other way around.
Society is unfair to herpes patients in many ways, essentially punishing them for coming forward and seeking help. As evidenced in Adrial Dale and Lee’s stories, there’s a lot more for herpes patients to deal with than just herpes itself. But with a more discreet, direct order option that actually works, they may be able to sidestep the stigma altogether and focus on the most important thing – their health.