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It's time to be open about herpes

It's time to be open about herpes

The New Zealand Herpes Foundation says it’s time that Kiwis were more open about genital herpes.

People need to know that it’s a common condition that can be easily managed in most cases, says Claire Hurst, project coordinator of the New Zealand Herpes Foundation.

Ms Hurst says that despite the wide availability of patient information on genital herpes through doctors’ surgeries, the Foundation still gets 250 calls a month on its tollfree information line from people concerned about the condition.

This week (eds: 10-16 October) the international herpes lobby is tackling the issue head on with the theme of “I have herpes, don’t you?” for International Herpes Week. The challenging banner was chosen to highlight the fact that up to 20 per cent of the sexually active adult population carry genital herpes. Yet, despite the fact that the virus is so widespread, many people affected by genital herpes feel embarrassed or ashamed. International Herpes Week aims to tackle this perceived stigma and improve understanding of herpes. Ms Hurst said most of the people with herpes in New Zealand remain unaware that they carry it, because they have very minor, atypical or no symptoms. Sometimes symptoms are confused with other urinary or genital complaints. However, even without visible signs of herpes present, carriers can pass on the virus to other sexual partners and therefore diagnosis and treatment is important.

“Over half of people who have genital herpes get it from partners who are unaware they have the infection,” said Ms Hurst. For those who do experience symptoms, the first signs can include flu-like symptoms, fever, headache, tingling, irritation or itching in the genital region and aching in the legs and buttocks. Individuals experience different symptoms and these may differ for each herpes outbreak. These can be followed by an outbreak of blisters that break and can dry to form crusts and later heal. Outbreaks differ for individuals; for some small blisters may appear and disappear quickly, sometimes unnoticed. The New Zealand Herpes Foundation, now in its 10th year, is also trying to tackle the perception of herpes as a social stigma.

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"This can act as a barrier, discouraging people from seeking medical help or talking openly with their sexual partners,” said Ms Hurst. “The aims of International Herpes Week are to challenge this outdated perception of what is a very common condition; to reassure people that herpes can usually be effectively managed; and to encourage them to talk openly and honestly about their condition.

“Often the psychological distress for a person with herpes far outweighs the physical symptoms which for most people are minor. For those that have problematic symptoms there is an effective oral antiviral treatment available on a doctor’s prescription,” said Ms Hurst.

The Foundation has just distributed updated guidelines on genital herpes to 4500 medical and health professionals, along with patient information. Leaflets on ‘Genital Herpes The Facts - a guide for people with genital herpes”; ‘Facial Herpes”; “Herpes and Relationships – managing genital herpes” and “Herpes in Pregnancy” are also available from the New Zealand Herpes Foundation website http://www.herpes.org.nz.

The Foundation’s toll-free information telephone line is 0508 11 12 13.

The theme of the stigma associated with genital herpes was explored last week at the Conference on Sexually Transmitted Infections organised by the International Union against Sexually Transmitted Infections (IUSTI) in Myconos Greece on 7-9 October 2004. A satellite symposium on Friday 8 October considered The Management of Genital Herpes in the Modern World - Addressing the Myths. (Eds: The press materials can be downloaded from the International Herpes Week section of the IHA website http://www.herpesalliance.org)

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