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Why Is Herpes Stigma Still A Thing?

Discussion in 'Microbiology' started by Mahmoud Abudeif, Jan 23, 2021.

  1. Mahmoud Abudeif

    Mahmoud Abudeif Golden Member

    Mar 5, 2019
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    Late one evening four years ago, Erica Spera, then 25, noticed two bumps blooming in her vaginal area. The discovery alarmed her because, a week earlier, after not having sex for about six months, the New York City comedian twice hooked up with a new partner. Spera believed she was generally on the careful side of the spectrum, landing there in part because, during college, a friend of hers had contracted genital herpes. She’d asked the man if he ever had a sexually transmitted infection, and he’d said no. But with nothing to be done about the bumps as she readied for bed, Spera decided to visit a walk-in medical care clinic the next day. When she woke up, the number of bumps had doubled, totaling half a dozen by the time she disrobed for the doctor.


    “Oh yeah, it’s genital herpes,” Spera recalls the doctor saying evenly. “I see it all the time; it’s not a big deal.”

    “Um, do you have genital herpes?” Spera asked, hitting pause on the doctor’s playlist of nonchalant observances. The doctor said she didn’t, and Spera pleaded for some compassion.

    “It’s jarring news to hear,” Spera says. “I was, like, a mess.”

    More than one out of every six people between the ages of 14 and 49 have genital herpes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the commonality of cases does little if anything to mitigate the despair that, for most, comes with a diagnosis. Nor does the fact that genital herpes is about as easy to manage as oral herpes, and outbreaks often number only a few, with decreasing severity and frequency, over a lifetime.

    After her diagnosis, Spera endured depression, and her self-confidence “tanked.” She quickly lost 10 pounds because she thought, “You need to be really hot now,” or else no man would want to have sex with her. Then, even after questioning the honesty of the guy she slept with — who later tested positive for herpes simplex virus type 1, or HSV-1, one of two types that causes genital herpes — Spera briefly dated him again out of worries over constant rejection on the dating scene. Such emotional carnage is a direct result of social stigmatization of HSV-positive individuals.

    Meanwhile, mirroring and potentially exacerbating this harsh, unsympathetic reality today is our cultural response to COVID-19.

    “I feel like there’s some hidden animosity sometimes against people who have COVID,” says Dr. Jessica Shepherd, an OB/GYN, women’s health expert, and clinical advisor to FemiClear, a company that manufactures genital herpes treatment products for women. As is true of the HSV virus types, Shepherd says someone with COVID-19 could be asymptomatic and infect others, which goes against the narrative that people who spread either the HSV viruses or the coronavirus are generally irresponsible. Shepherd believes the medical community “could have done a better job” informing the public about the realities of COVID-19, and calls for “a PR-type revamp” targeting public perception of people with the illness.

    A number of COVID-19 victim-blaming cases have turned up in the media, with reports of those victims experiencing shame and isolation, not unlike that often felt by those with genital herpes. One man who wrote a letter to the Charlotte Observer said he experienced victim-blaming twice: upon his initial COVID-19 infection and re-infection. The victim-blaming phenomenon quickly became so disturbing and pervasive — particularly in communities of people of color — that by April the Surgeon General under the Obama administration, Dr. Regina Benjamin, felt compelled to speak out against it. “We don’t want to blame victims,” she told WBEZ in Chicago. “One of the things I hope we come out of this entire crisis with on the other end is a little more empathy.”


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