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Survey reveals public's misconceptions about herpes

INSIDER logoINSIDER 5/26/2020 insider@insider.com (Julia Naftulin)
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  • A new survey of 1,000 Americans found that 41.5% incorrectly believe the sexually transmitted disease herpes is deadly. 
  • The survey also found that 1 in 10 people wouldn't tell their sexual partner if they had herpes.
  • The results suggest STI stigma is still widespread and may contribute to a hidden epidemic of STIs like herpes.

A new survey of 1,000 Americans revealed a general misunderstanding about sexually transmitted diseases and what getting one means for your health.

The survey, which was conducted by Babylon Health US through an independent survey company, asked respondents to identify skin conditions in various images using multiple choice answers like "athlete's foot," "eczema," and "herpes." The survey also asked general questions about sex and STIs, including whether a person would tell their partner they had herpes or not.

Of the respondents, 41.5% said they believed herpes, an STI that can cause genital or face warts, was deadly. But herpes, if treated with regular medication, is not deadly, and flare-ups can be kept under control with treatment. In fact, 1 out of every 6 Americans are living with genital herpes, according to the CDC.

The survey also found that only a quarter of respondents, or 25.7%, were able to identify herpes in a picture, and often mistook the sores herpes causes with other skin conditions like psoriasis, shingles, and eczema.

Some respondents were also misinformed about how herpes is spread, and if it's contagious.

One third said genital and oral herpes aren't contagious STIs, and 34.8% incorrectly said that if a person has herpes but doesn't show symptoms, they can't pass on the virus. In fact, herpes can be spread from person to person even if an infected person doesn't have sores on their mouth or genitals.

Perhaps most shocking, 1 in 10 respondents said they wouldn't tell their partner if they had herpes.

There's a 'hidden epidemic' of sexually transmitted diseases like herpes 

The survey results suggest STI stigma in the United States is still common. That stigma can contribute to the global uptick in STIs, which WHO previously referred to as a 'hidden epidemic.'

According to a June 2019 report from WHO, there are 1 million new STIs occurring in people between the ages of 15 and 49 every day.

"These STIs have a profound impact on the health of adults and children worldwide," a WHO press release on the data read. "If untreated, they can lead to serious and chronic health effects that include neurological and cardiovascular disease, infertility, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirths, and increased risk of HIV. They are also associated with significant levels of stigma and domestic violence."

Herpes can't be cured, but it is treatable

Though untreated STIs like herpes can lead to severe medical problems, a person who receives STI treatment can go on to live a long and fulfilling life, and even have safe sex.

A cure for herpes doesn't exist, but a person with herpes can take a daily antiviral treatment in the form of a pill to suppress genital wart outbreaks, according to the American Sexual Health Association.

The sores can sometimes feel itchy and painful, and they also can cause herpes to spread to another person if touched, so these medications help both with relief and transmission.

If a person has a herpes outbreak, they should abstain from sex to prevent transmitting it to their partner, according to the NHS. Though herpes can't spread through a condom, the sores can still act as a transmission source.

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