Medicine: Herpes: The New Sexual Leprosy

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"Viruses of love " infect millions with disease and despair

Susan, 29, a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard, knew her boyfriend had a herpes infection and consulted her gynecologist about the safety of having intercourse. The doctor reassured her that herpes was only contagious if her partner had festering sores. Susan slept with her friend, who had no obvious signs, and within a week got herpes.

Don, 47, an engineer, succumbed to the temptation of a local lady while on a job in Asia and woke one morning to find a cluster of ugly red sores on his penis. Subsequently divorced, he acquired a new lover and learned that he had given herpes to her. Says he: "I regard myself as a carrier of an invisible, incurable disease. I have a guilt trip that won't quit."

Such is the predicament—indeed, the pathos—of herpes, one of the most common venereal diseases in the U.S. today, possibly even more widespread than gonorrhea. This year up to half a million more Americans will develop the telltale genital blisters of herpes, adding to the 5 million to 14 million who already have the disease. When they seek medical help, they will often be given incorrect information or false hopes for cures. Most will suffer shame, guilt and even depression, and a few will become suicidal over what they feel is the "new leprosy."

Herpes, from the Greek "to creep," has been around for ages: the Roman Emperor Tiberius vainly tried to stamp it, or something like it, out by banning kissing. With the sexual revolution of the 1960s, herpes broke out of its confines as a venereal disease that was thought (incorrectly) to afflict only the "licentious" lower classes. Suddenly, "viruses of love" infected entire college dormitories and rode the waves of rising divorce and crumbling monogamy.

There are no precise figures: herpes is not reportable and few victims like to talk about it. But Dr. Paul Wiesner, director of the VD division at Atlanta's Center for Disease Control, estimates that as many as 30% of the sexually active U.S. population have been exposed to genital herpes, while not in all cases developing its symptoms. Doctors were talking of only 5% less than a decade ago.

The viruses after which the disease is named come in some 70 varieties, most of them noninfectious to humans. Those harmful to people cause birth defects, chicken pox and shingles, and mononucleosis (the "kissing disease"). The ones implicated in venereal disease are herpes simplex types 1 and 2. The first type triggers fever blisters, or cold sores, around the mouth: it is also an agent in various eye ailments that can, if untreated, lead to blindness. The second usually shows up in the genital area of both sexes, and sometimes on the thighs and buttocks. Both types can be transmitted between mouth and genitals by oral sex.

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