When I was 9 years old, I came down with a terrifying bout of pneumonia and ended up in the hospital for a week. I remember having a panic attack when I couldn’t catch my breath and my mother, scared, called a doctor for help. He arrived quickly and calmed me down with his gentle bedside manner. He helped me take deep, slow breaths through an oxygen mask, to the tune of his voice as he counted down from 10. I egged myself on, knowing I had to relax or I’d get transferred to the local children’s hospital.
A few days later, I arrived back at school. I was in fourth grade. I had recovered but still had trouble breathing. Whenever my immune system runs low, I’m at greater risk for a herpes outbreak, and that’s exactly what happened. My face had erupted in giant, oozing cold sores. During recess, I sat on a bench alone listening to Coldplay’s “Yellow” on my Walkman. A group of older, prettier and more popular girls approached me. I pulled one of my earbuds out to hear what they were saying, only to find they were taunting me. “AIDS Face.” “Pimple Mouth.” “Zit Lips.”
I’ve had herpes for as long as I can remember, likely contracting the virus as a grabbing toddler reaching for my mother’s face.
As these cruel names were hurled at me, I trembled, cried and hugged my legs to my chest. When treating cold sores, time is of the essence. The second you feel a tingle, you need to treat the afflicted area. This helps mitigate the severity of the breakout. However, for a period of my childhood, I chose inaction, too traumatized by the stigma to do anything about it anymore. Instead, I leaned into being the weird kid and a social pariah, allowing my face to be riddled with herpes. While being infected with the virus is common and technically not a big deal, I was astronomically ashamed and isolated. In pop culture, the word herpes is near synonymous with dirty and that’s how I felt — dirty.
I’ve had herpes for as long as I can remember, likely contracting the virus as a grabbing toddler reaching for my mother’s face. Over the decades, I have spent a considerable amount of time agonizing over how to skip work, school and social events. When hiding from the world, I have tried every home remedy, topical cream and ointment and antiviral drug available. Sadly, there is no cure for herpes, only options to limit or prevent outbreaks. But a new vaccine on the horizon could prove to be a game changer.
Moderna is developing a vaccine using mRNA technology to treat the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two HSV virus types — HSV-1, the one I have, that affects the mouth, face and genitals, and HSV-2, which predominantly affects the genitals. However, both viruses can spread to other parts of the body. In the United States, of people aged 14 to 49, 47.8 percent have HSV-1 and 11.9 percent have HSV-2, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many people living with herpes don’t know they have it, which means these figures may be far greater. HSV remains latent in the body, staying alive through the lifelong infection of a given person. When reactivated, HSV results in visible outbreaks. The vaccine will protect against HSV-2 and provide cross-protection for HSV-1 as a suppressive antiviral treatment.
The CDC recommends against widespread testing for herpes as, alongside the risk of false positives, “the risk of shaming and stigmatizing people outweighs the potential benefits.” Throughout my life, the social stigma surrounding herpes has proven more disastrous for my mental health than the virus itself. For so long, I assumed I wasn’t likable, let alone loveable. I believed I would be consigned to a life without sex and intimacy, having internalized harmful myths about a generally harmless infection. When I’ve had an outbreak, I’ve often chosen abstinence over disclosure, too fearful of rejection to open up. Interestingly, many people don’t even realize that having had chickenpox or shingles means they’ve been infected by a member of the herpes family. (Moderna is also developing a vaccine that would reduce the rate of the varicella-zoster virus that causes shingles.) But it’s the sexual component of HSV-1 and 2 that remains socially lethal.
The CDC recommends against widespread testing for herpes as, alongside the risk of false positives, “the risk of shaming and stigmatizing people outweighs the potential benefits.”
Much of the hysteria affecting the social status of herpes has been generated by the media and pharmaceutical companies. A 1982 TIME magazine cover labeled genital herpes “Today’s Scarlet Letter.” Authors of the cover story, John Leo and Maureen Dowd, posited that it could cause the sexual revolution to grind to a shrieking halt. Even more dramatic, the story argued that herpes was “altering sexual rites in America, changing courtship patterns, sending thousands of sufferers spinning into months of depression and self-exile and delivering a numbing blow to the one-night stand.”
Given the stigma around HIV at the time, perhaps the increased awareness about herpes did make some people change their sexual behaviors, but we also know that any activity that was deemed sexually deviant was used as a scapegoat to make sex seem shameful. A 2016 Vice exposé found that, starting in the 1970s, there is evidence that “big pharma” likely conjured up and perpetuated stigma to increase sales of a new drug, one that couldn’t be used to treat all members of the herpes family. To advertise the drug, herpes had to be pushed as a disease worthy of attention, the answer to which was a sex panic.
In the age of medical misinformation, vaccines themselves are misunderstood. For example, in general, they have been said to cause autism, despite no scientific evidence. The misinformation seems to increase when it comes to newly available ones; look no further than conspiracy theories swirling around Covid-19 vaccines, which were rumored to contain infertility agents or spread HIV — another notoriously stigmatized STI. The mRNA technology used to create these life-saving Covid-19 vaccines opened up the door for those Moderna is currently developing to treat herpes. In the near future, it’s possible that people will be prevented from ever getting herpes and that those with it won’t have to suffer through outbreaks anymore. I’ve wondered if the social stigma will persist and if kids like myself will be spared the pain I have experienced since childhood.