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Herpes Is A Common Virus. Why Do We Treat It Like The Plague?

'Herpes+ and fine with it' in white font on a black background
Ella Dawson
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Stigma around the herpes virus paints people with positive statuses as dirty, promiscuous and irresponsible. But the virus is very common and not mutually exclusive with a healthy sex life.

When Ella Dawson got diagnosed with genital herpes, she felt like her body betrayed her. Herpes was something dirty, something bad that happened to other people. For a 20-something coming into her sexuality and body confidence, a sexually transmitted infection was a huge setback.

It took Dawson the next couple years to understand the diagnosis — how the disease worked and how she experienced it in her body — all while navigating stigma that painted her as promiscuous and irresponsible rather than the recipient of an infection that affects 776,000 people in the U.S. each year.

Herpes is more common than many people realize, says Dr. Peter Leone, a professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine and an adjunct associate professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School of Global Public Health. An estimated one in eight people in the U.S. have the herpes simplex virus type 2, which causes most cases of genital herpes. As many as one in two people have the herpes simplex virus type 1, which causes most cases of oral herpes.

Host Anita Rao talks with Dawson about navigating awkward conversations with romantic partners and how she overcomes judgement based on misconceptions about herpes. Rao also lays out the basics of how the virus works with Leone. And Tanya Bass, Southern sexologist and sex educator, joins the conversation to discuss barriers to treatment and education about herpes.

Four Herpes Misconceptions, Debunked

Myth: People who get herpes are irresponsible.

Ella Dawson on breaking down STI shaming:

There's this real sense that if you have an STI, you have some kind of moral failing. And I think that's particularly true for young women, because we already are so aware that our sexual behavior is seen as a reflection of our value and of our femininity. … It took me a really long time to unlearn that and to realize that a virus is just a virus and it's not a reflection of my worth as a human being.

Myth: You’ll know you have herpes if you have genital sores.

Dr. Peter Leone on the varietal nature of herpes symptoms:

What you saw written up in medical textbooks and then lay literature was the description of genital herpes that was a disease state, but not typical for how most people present. … As a result, people think that if they don't have sores and painful blisters, that they don't have herpes. It’s really a misnomer. In fact, about 85% of folks with genital herpes due to HSV-2 aren't aware that they have it.

Myth: There is equal access to treatment for herpes.

Tanya Bass on breaking down treatment barriers:

Marginalized communities don't often have the access or the information to access [suppressive therapy]. … We're fortunate that in many of our institutions here in North Carolina, as far as universities, that we have student health and counseling services where there are pharmacists or [the] ability to receive treatment for herpes. So I think that we have to understand that everyone may not have access to it, but we need to break down the barriers so that they can access the treatment.

Myth: Disclosing a herpes diagnosis will make someone reject you.

Dawson on conversations with potential partners:

A lot of folks just don't realize that they've absorbed these harmful messages about STIs and are really quick to learn — because they are, at their heart, a good person. So if someone does react negatively at first, as long as they're not being cruel, I think that we should leave some space for folks to have that initial freaked out reaction. And then realize this is really silly and disproportionate.

Kaia Findlay is a producer for Embodied, WUNC's weekly, live talk show on health, sex and relationships. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a live, weekly radio show and seasonal podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.