According to WHO’s first global estimates of herpes infection, more than 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 – or 67% of the population – are infected with herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). The “herpes” we know as an STD is genital herpes caused by HSV-2. WHO’s latest journal article highlights that HSV-1 is also an important cause of genital herpes.
HSV-1 causes lesions on the lips or around the mouth commonly referred to as cold sores or fever blisters. It’s primarily transmitted by oral-to-oral contact. Both oral and genital herpes viruses can sometimes be spread, even when you do not have mouth sores or blisters.
This report should raise concerns on the unequal distribution of healthcare and necessary infrastructure resources. Based on WHO’s data, we can found that the rate of infection is significantly higher in regions such as Africa and South-East Asia than regions such as the US. Fewer people in high-income countries are becoming infected with HSV-1 as children, likely due to better hygiene and living condition. One implication of policy making is to provide more access to hygienic water as well as other resources to underdeveloped regions. At the same time, public education is also important because most people get infected as children. For example, some parents chew food for their children and pass the virus to them.
HSV-1 infected disease is also a good example for illnesses affected by social factors. According to WHO, though the virus is highly infectious and incurable, symptoms such as blisters only occur when the patients’ immune system is under stress. Some people, if they get a lot of sun exposure, they’ll get an outbreak, or women during pregnancy or when they have their menstrual periods.
The high estimated proportion of the herpes infection has significant effects. Even in the region that has the lowest rate (Americas: 178 million women (49%), 142 million men (39%)), nearly half of people under 50 are infected. This undermines what we define as an illness. There have been such comments from the public as: “It is not herpes; it is cold sores” or “Everyone is infected”. These comments surely exaggerate the facts. However, it reflects how the big number can reduce people’s definition of a certain illness. If over 99% of the adults are infected with HSV-1 worldwide, would it still be recognized as an illness or simply an accepted impairment in our immune system.
We need to acknowledge that, people who are infected with herpes, even the HSV-1, are stigmatized in most societies. Will the new WHO findings promote the de-stigmatization of the diseases? Due to the high infection rate? WHO has stated that “People with orolabial herpes symptoms may face social stigma, and can experience psychological distress as a result.” On the other hand, this finding may evoke panics among the public and accentuate the stigmatization on sexual activity as general. For example, on the website of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, several suggestions were given. “The only way to avoid STDs is to not have vaginal, anal, or oral sex.” “If you are sexually active, you can do the following things to lower your chances of getting herpes: Being in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and has negative STD test results.” Not only do those suggestions emphasize the isolation of infected population but also propose a preferred way of conducting sex. This a good example how the disease and they way people perceive it can shape the public’s view on sex and certain sexual conduct such as multiple partners.