Addressing the Consequences of Herpes Stigma

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Herpes Virus, artwork. David Mack/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Have you ever referred to glitter as craft herpes?

Have you ever laughed when a friend said "She probably has herpes" about someone you didn't like?

If so, you've contributed to the stigma associated with genital herpes infection.

The Impact of Herpes Stigma

Although, for most people, the symptoms associated with oral or genital herpes infection are mild and/or infrequent, the negative impact a positive herpes test has on someone's life can be enormous.

The stigma associated with herpes is so great that a newly diagnosed person may feel that their life is over or that no one will ever love them again. They may blame their partner. They may even sink into severe depression or contemplate suicide. All for a disease that is not deadly (except, rarely, for infants), infrequently associated with severe health problems (although those are seen somewhat more often in those who are immunocompromised), and often not even symptomatic. In fact, that's one of the greatest ironies of herpes stigma. Most people with herpes won't have noticeable genital lesions or cold sores. They may not even realize they're infected since they'll never notice symptoms at all.

The question is WHY?

Sources of Herpes Stigma

Negative imagery about herpes pervades pop culture and social discourse. In fact, in some circumstances, the word herpes has become almost interchangeable with dirty.

This can be seen in how often the two words are linked. A Google search in the Spring of 2015 found more than 600,000 matches for the terms used in close proximity to each other on a website.

An examination of how herpes is discussed in mainstream culture suggests that the stigma of herpes has little or nothing to do with the actual disease.

One user's definition of herpes by association on the site Urban Dictionary states that it is

... a stigma against an individual who hangs out with an unhygenic person. For instance your friend points out to you , ew OMG that guy you are with has herpes on his face! Then they think you will become dirty or infected if you keep hanging around them. Herpes is transmittable so you have to cut the ties! Youll get a terrible reputation hanging around with a herpes kid.”

There are also numerous other pop culture examples such as the lyrics of the Industrial Revolution song Immortal Techniques, which state, "My metaphors are dirty like herpes but harder to catch.”

Sadly, the negative and inaccurate associations between herpes and hygiene are so pervasive that people don't even think about them anymore. I am ashamed to admit that I used the phrase "craft herpes" to refer to glitter for years, until I realized that by doing so I was contributing to the culture of stigma myself. 

The Social Consequences of Herpes Stigma

Herpes stigma is bad for individual mental health since it is linked to increased stress, depression, and other negative emotional consequences.

Herpes stigma is bad for physical health since stress increases the likelihood of recurrent outbreaks.

Herpes stigma is also bad for society. It may even increase the rates of transmission in the population. After all, concerns about stigma and rejection are a major reason why people don't disclose herpes infections to their partners. Stigma also decreases individuals' willingness to get tested for herpes, and doctors' willingness to provide tests -- even to those who ask for them.

The irony is that if people were aware of how common herpes is, how large a percentage of the population are infected with HSV-1 and HSV-2, the stigma associated with the disease would probably be a lot less. It's a lot harder to see a disease as dirty when it affects so many of the people you love. It's a lot harder to see yourself as dirty when you know you are very far from alone.

Sources:

Barnack-Tavlaris JL, Reddy DM, Ports K. Psychological adjustment among women living with genital herpes. J Health Psychol. 2011 Jan;16(1):12-21.

Merin A, Pachankis JE. The psychological impact of genital herpes stigma. J Health Psychol. 2011 Jan;16(1):80-90. doi: 10.1177/1359105310367528.

Mirza RA, Eick-Cost A, Otto JL. The risk of mental health disorders among U.S. military personnel infected with human immunodeficiency virus, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2000-2011. MSMR. 2012 May;19(5):10-3.

Myers JL, Buhi ER, Marhefka S, Daley E, Dedrick R. Associations between individual and relationship characteristics and genital herpes disclosure. J Health Psychol. 2015 Mar 26. pii: 1359105315575039.

Pratt LA, Xu F, McQuillan GM, Robitz R. The association of depression, risky sexual behaviours and herpes simplex virus type 2 in adults in NHANES, 2005-2008. Sex Transm Infect. 2012 Feb;88(1):40-4. doi: 10.1136/sextrans-2011-050138.

Urban Dictionary. (2007) "Herpes by Association" http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Herpes+by+association Accessed 4/22/15

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