For an altogether benign disease that 90% of people are exposed to by the age of 50, herpes sure does seem to freak a lot of people out. Sure, it’s somewhat unpleasant to look at and even more unpleasant to feel on your skin, but do we really need to treat it like such a scourge? There are no real health risks to having herpes, whether oral or genital, other than the discomfort and potential itchiness factor. To quote an article published by Vice’s Broadly in 2016, “Most people don't care about the virus itself; they care about how the virus is perceived.”
The stigma surrounding herpes is severe enough to shame people into staying quiet about their diagnoses—an obvious problem if we want to stop the spread. Many experts estimate that the psychological consequences of a herpes diagnosis are more damaging than the physical consequences. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this stigma has been linked to a more malicious source: big pharma. In the 1970s and 80s, as a response to the “free love” generation of the 60s, doctors finally began to distinguish between the two herpes viruses (simplex 1 is often referred to as oral herpes, and simplex 2 is often referred to as genital herpes).
It’s been rumored by several sources that herpes was consciously stigmatized by a pharmaceutical company called Burroughs Wellcome Inc., which needed to create a market for their HSV-calming drug, Zovirax. With the intention of galvanizing a generation of young people in need of healing for their STDs, it is said that Burroughs Wellcome subtly emphasized the social consequences of living with the infection instead of the physical or medical. Herpes broke out into the public consciousness with more ferocity in the 1980s, when it suddenly became a household name STD—and Zovirax was profiting big time.
The truth about herpes, outside of this allegedly purposefully crafted stigma, is that it’s a skin infection that can easily be managed. It’s not a death sentence, physically or socially. Of course, continue to practice safe sex and use condoms during all forms of sex with a penis (don’t forget oral!!), but if you wind up with the virus—and chances are you’ve already been exposed—take a deep breath, talk to your doctor about it, and continue living life as normal. Adios, stigma.
Image credit: The Skiny