Interview with the Virus: Herpes

Cartoon by Megan Stewart

Me: Tell us who you are?

HSV-1: Oral herpes or herpes simplex virus 1 here. I cause cold sores. Sitting next to me, hiding behind a mask of shame, is my sibling herpes simplex 2…

HSV-2: I can speak for myself.

HSV-1: Sorry.

HSV-2: I’m the dreaded genital herpes – but for the record, these days HSV-1 causes as many herpes in the genital area as I do.   

Me: How’d that happen?

HSV-2: Most people get HSV-1 as children. About 7 out 10 people have cold sores. People get HSV-2 later with sexual activity. Because HSV-1 can cause both oral and genital herpes, those without natural immunity to HSV-1 can develop HSV-1 genital herpes through oral sex.   

HSV-1: Speaking for me and HSV-2 (HSV-2 groaned under its mask), we have an unjust rep because of where we go – not what we do. Yeah, I get it – nobody wants me on their date nights or vacation photos, but nobody wants COVID, either. Yet, we, and other STDs, are cemented in the Walk of Shame. Somebody said, “Life is sexually transmitted.” (HSV-1 looks at HSV-2 nervously.) HSV-2 have been relationship breakers. To me, infections are infections. COVID likes lungs, Staph likes skin, we like nerves and skin. Like our cousin, chicken pox/shingles, we spent most of our lives traveling, multiplying, and sleeping in nerves. Yes, I deserve respect. No, I will not live in whispers.

HSV-2: “There’s no darkness but ignorance.” Shakespeare.

Me: Wow, powerful. What’s the worst you can do?

HSV-1: We can be the worstest, especially in the immunocompromised, but for the healthy majority, the inconvenience and embarrassment are worse than the disease.

HSV-2: Not “worstest,” just “worst.”

HSV-1: Really, now?

Me: Without sounding rude, how can we get rid of you?

HSV-2: You can’t.

HSV-1: We’re a lifelong infection.

HSV-2: “If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” Maya Angelou.

Me: Nicely put.

HSV-1: For real, did you come here today with a list of quotes to impress? HSV-2 has many complexes. It feels superior because we’re sophisticated double-stranded DNA viruses as opposed to COVID’s single-stranded RNA virus, which mutates constantly because the dumbbell can’t ever replicate itself right. But HSV-2 feels unworthy and scandalous. For one, its name starts with “genital.” Before anybody points fingers, about 13% of Americans have HSV-2. Most don’t know it. A simple blood test can tell if you’ve had HSV, type 1 and/or 2.  

Me: What can we do so you don’t ruin our lives and relationships?

HSV-2: For frequent outbreaks, a class of antiviral medications – acyclovir, valacyclovir, famciclovir – works well. The drugs are cheap (five days of acyclovir starts at $1, and well tolerated. Taken immediately when you feel tinkling or the nub of a blister, it can reduce the duration and severity of an outbreak. Or you can take a low dose daily and keep the frequency of outbreaks way down. Call your doctor.

HSV-1: May I add a holistic approach? It’s not totally clear why some get herpes bad and others don’t. Your immune system is complicated. However, a good policy is keeping your stress down. Sleep, eat right, exercise, avoid intense sun exposure, look at the big picture … we are your stress meter.

Me: Any last message?

HSV-1: We can pop up in your nose, mouth, finger, toe, buttock, and thigh. If you have painful blisters/ulcers in these areas that come and go, could be us. By the way, you cannot get herpes from toilet seats.

HSV-2: Learn more about us. Knowledge will reduce our social stigma – and reduce transmission.

Me: I look forward to the day you shed your mask.

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Volume 14, Issue 22, Posted 10:11 AM, 11.15.2022