Life / Health

Dating with herpes: Two women share their struggle

Amanda had just started dating again after ending her marriage when she found out she had genital herpes.

The 30-year-old from Vancouver, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, thought she would never find love again.

“I was totally devastated,” she told Metro. “I went through a grieving process and cut myself off from everyone for about a month.”

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection. According to data collected through the Canadian Health Measures Survey, as many as one in seven Canadians aged 14 to 59 may be infected by herpes simplex virus 2, one of two viruses responsible for the infection.

Compared to many other sexually transmitted infections, herpes is relatively harmless. The infection may cause painful sores, a slight fever, swollen lymph nodes and body aches, but in many cases, people don’t experience any symptoms. Only in extremely rare cases can the virus result in serious infections.

Still, herpes has a social stigma attached to it that for many sufferers is worse than the actual infection. According to a 2006 online poll conducted by pharmaceutical company Novartis, the stigma surrounding herpes is second only to HIV.

 Alex McKay, Sex Information and Education Council of Canada.

Alex McKay, Sex Information and Education Council of Canada.

Alex McKay, executive director of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, blames the stigma attached to herpes on ignorance.

“The stigma is simply unjustified,” he said. “It is by and large rooted in ignorance. The vast majority of Canadians have very little, if any, understanding of … herpes.”

McKay said the percentage of the population with herpes is “huge,” but most people don’t know they carry the virus. While having many sexual partners does carry increased risks of acquiring any STI, herpes can spread between partners in long-term relationships just as easily, he said.

“Many of the people who may be making jokes about herpes may in fact have it themselves and they are unaware of it,” said McKay. “The idea that people who have active genital herpes infections acquired it either through promiscuous sexual behaviour is completely false.”

That was the case for Melanie, 32, of Kingston, Ont., who became infected with herpes during a two-year relationship with the man she thought she would marry.

Melanie, whose name has also been changed to protect her privacy, said her ex-boyfriend told her soon after they started dating that he had herpes. Despite taking steps to prevent transmission, she also became infected.

When the relationship ended, Melanie said she now faced the daunting task of having to disclose her infection to potential new partners. For two years, she didn’t date, and when she finally did, Melanie said she felt she had to justify how she became infected.

“It has such a negative connotation with it, of being promiscuous or taking risks,” she said. “That’s the hard part.”

Vancouver’s Amanda says she tried using a dating website that caters to people with genital herpes but found the selection of potential partners to be limited.

“The most frustrating thing is that in our dating culture, it’s normal to just jump into bed with people you hardly know,” she said. “And sometimes I have to tell them (I have herpes) before I am ready to because of that.”

After her diagnosis, Amanda said felt she had little in the way of support due to the stigma.

She reached out to friends and family but said she felt people didn’t really understand what she was going through. Others “weren’t all that sympathetic,” she said. Even her doctor brushed off her request for advice, telling her to look on the Internet for information.

Frustrated, Amanda said it wasn’t until she found a local support group that she finally realized it would be possible to date again.

Amanda said she hopes sharing her story can help inform more people about herpes and help break down the stigma.

“Herpes itself is such an insignificant illness,” she said, “but it causes so much pain because of all of the social barriers caused by it.”

Disclaimer: Although both women interviewed for this feature agreed the stigma surrounding herpes should be broken down, both requested to be quoted as anonymous sources as they feared for the repercussions of speaking publicly about their infections.

What is herpes and how common is it?

Herpes is an infection caused by the herpes simplex virus, or HSV.

There are two types of HSV that cause infections. HSV-1 generally causes oral herpes, commonly known as cold sores, while HSV-2 causes genital herpes.

However, there is mixing between the two, with HSV-2 causing oral herpes and HSV-1 causing genital herpes, said Dr. Jason Wong, physician epidemiologist at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

Although condom use reduces the risk of contracting the virus, which spreads through skin-to-skin contact even when sores aren’t present, it does not eliminate the risk of infection.

When someone becomes infected, Wong said the virus lives in the nerves where it stays dormant most of the time.

Occasionally, the virus becomes active — usually triggered by stress — and travels to the surface of the skin where it reproduces itself, Wong said.

That can result in a painful sore on the skin, he said, but sometimes a person does not have any symptoms. That makes it difficult to estimate the prevalence of herpes infection, he said.

According to data collected as part of the 2009 to 2011 Canadian Health Measures Survey, 13.6 per cent — or one in seven — Canadians aged 14 to 59 have antibodies against HSV-2. Still, 94 per cent of those who tested positive were unaware of their status.

More on