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Herpes: The disease of billions

Diagnosis - Herpes. Medical Concept with Blue Pills, Injections and Syringe. Selective Focus. Blurred Background. 3D Render.
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For some, herpes is a badge of shame. However, there is no need for this to be the case. Herpes, in fact, is relatively common. Globally, there are billions of people living with the diseases according to research by the University of Bristol, the World Health Organization (WHO), and Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar. 

Herpes refers to the herpes simplex virus, which manifests in two types: type-1 (HSV-1) and type-2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 is usually transmitted mouth-to-mouth, resulting in oral herpes, though can also result in genital herpes through contact between the genitals and the mouth. HSV-2 causes genital herpes. Both infections are lifelong. 

Generally, herpes is asymptomatic. However, it can result in symptoms such as cold sores, blisters, and ulcers. It can also sometimes lead to severe complications, especially in those who are immunocompromised. Rarely, neonatal herpes can occur when, as explained by the WHO, “an infant is exposed to HSV in the genital tract during delivery. This is a rare condition, occurring in an estimated ten out of every 100,000 births globally, but can lead to lasting neurologic disability or death.” 

The WHO notes that “the risk for neonatal herpes is greatest when a mother acquires HSV infection for the first time in late pregnancy. Women who have genital herpes before they become pregnant are at very low risk of transmitting HSV to their infants.”

One of the most pronounced effects of the disease is that on the individual’s life. One who is symptomatic may experience shame and an adverse effect on interpersonal relationships and their own wellbeing. This does not need to be the case. Those with herpes are far from alone. 

Globally, approximately a half-billion people live with genital herpes. Thirteen percent of those aged fifteen to 49 alone live with HSV-2. Meanwhile, 67 percent of those in the 0-49 age bracket live with HSV-1 – translating to 3.7 billion people. 

Those living with the disease do not live alone, as this data shows. However, there are health concerns attached to herpes. The WHO notes that “people with HSV-2 infection are at least three times more likely to become infected with HIV, if exposed. Thus, HSV-2 likely plays a substantial role in the spread of HIV globally. Women are more susceptible to both HSV-2 and HIV.” Those who are immunocompromised, as can be the result of HIV infection, also risk experiencing serious complications.

At present, herpes is incurable. However, a vaccine could mitigate the damage – especially that of HSV-2. “A vaccine against HSV infection would not only help to promote and protect the health and well-being of millions of people, particularly women, worldwide – it could also potentially have an impact on slowing the spread of HIV, if developed and provided alongside other HIV prevention strategies” commented Dr Meg Doherty, Director of the WHO Department of Global HIV, Hepatitis, and STI Programmes. As such, there is a need for further investigation into preventing herpes, mitigating the impact on the vulnerable, and investing into finding a vaccine.

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