What Is Herpes?
Many people have been diagnosed with herpes, and yet they do not know what herpes actually is- so let’s define it
Herpes is a virus that has been around for 140 million years, infecting humans and animals alike. Over twenty-five centuries ago, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, coined the term herpes from the Greek “to creep”. Aptly named, herpes has the ability to creep along any nerve and infect skin cells at more distant sites. Herpes is so common globally that it has the second largest incidence rate worldwide, trailing only behind the common cold. Chances are you have been exposed to the herpes virus at some point in your lifetime.
When I was a child, parents would throw chickenpox parties so that all of the children would become infected. The idea was that it was better for the body to build up immunity and “learn” about the virus so that the chances of developing a reoccurrence from the painful condition of shingles later in life was not as high. Can you imagine if we could get over the stigma of HSV (Herpes Simplex Virus) and have a neutral, educated perspective on it? Now, don’t imply from this that I would encourage sexual parties to spread the love, but seriously, it does show how ostracized our viewpoints are of one strain of the herpes virus and not the other.
HSV is as common as the chickenpox strain and yet people associate herpes with being dirty or promiscuous. Why is it that most people don’t think twice about a cold sore, but would feel embarrassed about a genital outbreak, when in fact, it is the same type of virus. Cold sores are so prevalent in our culture and their location during cold and flu season make them challenging to hide. I am certain that you know of family and friends who are prone to these outbreaks and yet, you would never associate anything negative about their character for being a carrier of the virus. A genital sore; however, is hidden and found in an area that for most is very private and secretive.
As a culture, we have not been raised to talk about our sexual health, nor have we been encouraged to embrace our sexuality. Add an infection to our privates and we become extremely uncomfortable, shameful and embarrassed. This is why, I believe, that although a herpes infection can be detected in the blood of the whole body, our culture views the location of the outbreak differently. If a person has a genital outbreak, then their sexual practices are often wrongly, and presumptuously judged. This is something that most people are not comfortable talking about.
My opinion was reinforced by an experience I had, while I was interviewed on the morning show, Connections, on KGNU radio 88.5 FM (1390 AM) on the topic of Women and Herpes. The interviewer was shocked when she found out that chickenpox and Mononucleosis (the kissing disease) were both part of the herpes family. I could see the fear in her eyes when she asked me if by having either chickenpox or mononucleosis, did it mean she had HSV I or 2. I was happy to share with her that one did not preclude the other, but I do think that it drove the herpes conversation a little closer to home.
Shingles is a member of the herpes family, also known as Herpes Zoster.