The New Scarlet Letter

Herpes, an incurable virus, threatens to undo the sexual revolution

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One herpes patient who believes in frankness is Paul Morris, 33, a fan-belt salesman in Houston. He caught herpes in 1976. Dr. A. a general practitioner, said it was syphilis or gonorrhea. Dr. B. a dermatologist, thought it was an unknown skin ailment, and Dr. C. a specialist in infectious diseases, could not identify it but was positive it was not herpes. Only Dr. D. an old friend, had the wit to take a culture that showed the problem was herpes. When Morris informed the woman who gave it to him, she brushed it off with "No big deal." Morris felt betrayed, but so vulnerable that he stayed with the woman, although his infection rendered him sexually inactive during all but three weeks of the next twelve months. When he met his wife-to-be, he immediately told her of his herpes, and after some soul searching she decided that his honesty was more important than the disease. She and their baby daughter are free of herpes.

Frequently, herpes seems to strike nice, healthy, educated, clean-cut Caucasians of the middle and upper classes. Indeed, one survey says that 95% of sufferers are white. Skeptics point out that blacks and the poor, who are not part of the self-help culture, are unlikely to turn up in herpes surveys, and may have more crushing problems to cope with than venereal disease anyway. "Blacks get it, they just aren't obsessed with it," says Tom W. Moore, who works at a Mississippi VD clinic. Some researchers suggest that middle-class hygienic habits cause vulnerability: children who are kept squeaky clean do not get as many cold sores as poor youngsters and thus are generally missing antibodies that protect them against herpes. A study from Paris backs up the theory. It shows that only 30% of high-income French men and women have immunity to genital sores by age 20, but in lower-income brackets almost all children develop the antibodies by age 5.

One national group that tries to encourage constructive talk about herpes is the Herpes Resource Center in Palo Alto, Calif., an organization with 30,000 members in 45 chapters known as Help groups. The chapters function as a large group-therapy session, letting newcomers talk out their problems and assuring herpes sufferers that they are not alone.

The Herpes Resource Center tries to foster the notion of living normally. It is a difficult task because everything about herpes is conducive to irrational fears. No form of protection is absolute, and there is no sure way to know who has the disease, even after a close inspection. Says Dr. Philip Lake of Georgetown University: "As many as one out of six of the general population may from time to time be asymptomatic shedders of the herpes virus."

Doctors have little advice about how to avoid herpes. Though nothing is foolproof, it is best for the man to use a condom. A spermicide may also be helpful. In addition, sex partners should be known well enough to be trusted, and it should be borne in mind that oral sex is a contributing factor. VD Specialist Dr. Felman recommends getting a good look at the prospective sex partner with all the lights on. Says he: "If there are any sores or discharge, it's time to put your clothes back on and find another partner." That kind of clinical inspection leaves little room for mystery and candlelight.

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