The New Scarlet Letter

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

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Two u.C.L.A. researchers have reported that herpes viruses can live on towels for up to 72 hr. and on toilet seats for at least four. In one test, a seat used by a woman with thigh lesions showed live herpes viruses 90 min. later. But most doctors down-play the U.C.L.A. study. Dr. Harold Kessler of Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke's, in Chicago, says herpetics should use their own towels, though the chances of passing on the infection via a towel are only about 1%. The virus dies so fast on a toilet seat, he says, that the risk of infection from that source is very slight indeed.

The elusive nature of information about herpes causes much of the frustration among its sufferers. One major perplexity is why herpes recurs, sometimes after lying dormant for months or even years. "This thing seems to have a mind of its own," says Debera Edwards of Washington, D.C., who works in a law office. She contracted herpes in 1978 and complains about its vexing propensity for popping up at inopportune moments: "It knows exactly when you're going away, or when you're really looking forward to something." Says Dr. David Baker, a New York obstetrician: "Stress can reactivate the illness. It may just feed upon itself and create a vicious cycle."

For now, those who have herpes can do little but try to control the negative emotions and stress that often trigger attacks. Many herpes patients use yoga, Transcendental Meditation, biofeedback, hypnosis, talk therapy or simply "imaging," an attempt to conjure up happy images and serene thoughts. One Boston woman reports success by envisioning a golden globe sending off rays that heal herpes. Another woman says that smiling constantly when she felt a cold sore coming on kept the blisters from appearing. Says Dr. Hamilton: "The placebo effect is so strong that 60% of patients treated with any technique are going to get better."

This balming of the sore by the psyche may be the best palliative. Once anger and aggression are dealt with, says Therapist Riccio, a herpes sufferer can develop the kind of psychological calm that makes recurrences milder and rarer. Most manage that within six months, according to Fordham Professor Oscar Gillespie, a co-founder of the New York Help chapter. "Given the appropriate information," Gillespie says, "90% of herpes sufferers will adjust after the initial crisis."

For Fran Simon the clouds parted the day that her therapist asked whether herpes was one of the crucial facts about her life. "I realized then that it wasn't. It wasn't one of the ten most important things about me." One Atlanta man came out of his depression when the outbreaks began to ease. "I looked at it this way: 95% of the time I didn't have herpes. I worked it out and came to terms with it." For others, progress depends on a change of attitude, from victim to manager. Says Marilyn Anderson of Cleveland Heights: "I have this problem, yes, but I feel I have it under control and I can handle it mainly by taking care of my body and my mind. People who have herpes shouldn't downgrade themselves. You have to be positive."

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